Headlines and Happenings from Austin and Beyond
"Congratulations to all of you on a job well done defeating Props. 1 and 2. Simply stated they were bad public policy. Maybe this time, the Pendejo Kirk Mitchell learns that his $$$s cannot buy Austin. I think he should be deported to The Woodlands." Former Austin Mayor Gus Garcia, in an e-mail sent out to several prominent political and media types on Sunday
Quote of the Week
In the city's Saturday voting, as expected, Mayor Will Wynn won re-election in a landslide, and as not entirely expected, Props. 1 & 2 were kicked unceremoniously to the curb. Feel free to take a deep breath no more elections until at least, oh, November. (You'll be hearing personally from Carole Keeton Strayhorn.) For the other races and overall election news, see p.22.
The Texas Lege scuttled out of town again Monday, having accomplished in special session, under the threat of a Texas Supreme Court deadline, about half of what it failed to do three times before reform public school finance. Lawmakers cut property taxes, yes, but did they fund the schools? Well, not this time either. See "On the Lege," p.26.
After nearly nine years at the helm, APD Chief Stan Knee is leaving the building. On May 16, Knee officially announced that he is resigning his job, effective June 4, to take on a position overseeing the training of police in Afghanistan. (Yes, Afghanistan.) According to a city press release, Knee has been appointed Advisor/Mentor to the Afghan Minister of the Interior, a job he says will fulfill his "long-term goal" to help the federal government efforts to "rebuild and restore law enforcement activities" in the Middle East. While here, Knee has spearheaded several successful initiatives retooling and effectively implementing community-based policing, chief among them. City Manager Toby Futrell has appointed Assistant Chief Cathy Ellison, a 27-year APD veteran, to serve as the department's interim chief while the city conducts a national search for a new administrator; Ellison will be the first African-American woman to serve as interim chief. Jordan Smith
In other APD news, District Attorney Ronnie Earle announced on May 11 that his office has dropped the official oppression charge against rookie APD Officer Joel Follmer, one of three cops indicted on the Class A misdemeanor charge in connection with the September arrest of 25-year-old Ramon Hernandez. Officer Christopher Gray and former Officer William Heilman were both acquitted of the charges last month. Gray is now serving a 70-day suspension for using excessive force against Hernandez during the arrest, a portion of which was captured on an APD in-car video camera. Follmer is still on restricted duty, pending the conclusion of an Internal Affairs investigation into his role in the arrest. In a brief statement, Earle concluded that facts "developed" during the joint Heilman-Gray trial revealed that Follmer was the "least culpable of the three officers," he wrote. As such, Earle concluded that the case against Follmer should be dismissed, "in the interest of fairness." Jordan Smith
"Never fear I'm not going to filibuster," said Gonzalo Barrientos, Austin's long-serving legislator, as he took the mic on the Senate floor Monday for the last time in his 30-year-plus history in the Legislature. The eloquent and long-winded, when he's in filibuster mode Democrat is retiring at the end of this year, ending a lawmaking career that included a decade in the House before winning a seat in the Senate in 1984. Barrientos' tenure in the Legislature was merely an extension of what he'd been doing all along advocating for the poor and the disadvantaged, and anyone else who needed a helping hand. The 64-year-old senator made his biggest marks working to stem the school dropout rate, protecting the elderly, and championing the rights of state employees. He's among five longtime senators who will leave office this year, and all five were formally recognized on the floor Monday for their years of service and sweat. The other soon-to-be Senate retirees include Jon Lindsay, R-Houston, Ken Armbrister, D-Victoria, Frank Madla, D-San Antonio, who lost his seat in the Democratic primary, and Todd Staples, R-Palestine, who's running for agriculture commissioner. Amy Smith
Local environmentalists, still a bit bruised from their Save Our Springs Alliance proposition loss, intend to be out in force at the Thursday City Council hearing on the city's bond issue proposal. The bond package is expected go to voters in November. The support of open-space acquisition which has been trimmed significantly under the city staff's current $536 million bond proposal will likely be a rallying point for the enviros. The package also includes bonds for affordable housing, new facilities, and a new Central Library. Thursday's hearing is set for 6pm, and council is scheduled to finalize the bond ballot either next week or June 8. For more, see "Beside the Point" on the facing page. Kimberly Reeves
The Planning Commission heard public testimony on a proposed McMansion ordinance that seeks to put the kibosh on oversized dwellings sprouting up where humble bungalows once stood. After months of work, a task force of neighborhood and home-building professionals presented their recommendation, a consensus that appears to make no one completely happy. (It made it out of the task force with a 13-1 vote with the sole "nay" coming from a builder who wants to build larger houses.) The recommendation lays out a formula that would limit the bulk and mass of new construction on standard single-family lots. The basic limit would be roughly 32 feet tall and 2,300 square feet, but many homeowners (or developers) could easily go larger depending on the size and shape of the lot. The recommendation is scheduled to go to council next week. Rachel Proctor May
A controversial proposal to privatize Travis County's collection of late property taxes could get a vote in Commissioners Court next Tuesday, unless Commissioner Karen Sonleitner and former County Judge Bill Aleshire the plan's most vocal opponents can rouse enough public opposition to derail the deal before then. Commissioners had been expected to vote this week but delayed action after a four-hour debate. The private collector that would likely win the contract is the law firm that employs Ken Oden, the former county attorney who serves as frontman for the firm's efforts to secure the deal. Travis is the largest urban county in the state that collects its own delinquent taxes, and Sonleitner and Aleshire, as well as County Auditor Susan Spataro, County Attorney David Escamilla, and Tax Assessor Nelda Wells Spears, all insist there are plenty of reasons for keeping the program in-house, with public accountability topping the list. Oden's argument for privatizing the program centers on the number of lawsuits filed against delinquent taxpayers. Oden says most of those folks are low-income minority residents. Opponents say that argument is just a ploy to garner community support, pointing out that the county bends over backwards to help financially strapped residents work out a payment plan. A.S.
In other county news, Constable Bruce Elfant reports the abuse of handicapped parking placards is still rampant in Travis Co. Last year, Commissioners funded a deputy constable position that specifically dealt with the abuse and misuse of handicapped parking placards. An initial report, presented after six months of activity, showed that more than 600 tickets had been written for cars that either did not have a handicapped placard or a license plate or were parked in the diagonal stripes designated for van-unloading. More than 50 tickets were written for misuse of placards often borrowed from friends or family members, some of whom were deceased, Elfant said. City personnel who read meters do not have the law enforcement authority to ticket for placard abuse. Elfant is calling for another city position to address placard abuse and better ways to match placards to the proper vehicles and drivers. K.R.
On April 26, the Travis Co. Child Fatality Review Team released its annual report for 2005. This is the 10th report since 1996 and is intended to educate the community about the patterns and trends affecting the safety of Austin children ranging from pre-term infants to age 17. In 2005, Travis Co. reported 117 child deaths, a 4% decline from 2004 and the lowest number since 1999, during a period when the overall county population has been rapidly expanding. Natural deaths prematurity, illness, or incurable diseases account for the overwhelming majority of fatalities, 89 in 2005. The next most frequent causes are accidents of various kinds motor vehicle, asphyxia, and drowning. There were three child homicides in 2005, two from physical abuse (which includes Shaken Baby Syndrome); the 10-year average is seven a year. There were two child suicides reported in 2005 (after none last year). Both were Anglo males, aged 16 and 17. The entire report, including advice on education and prevention, is at www.centerforchildprotection.org. Jay Trachtenberg
Katrina evacuees wanting to appeal insufficient damage claims made by FEMA in rejecting their applications for further federal rent assistance have multiple places to turn for help. Representatives from Austin-based affordable housing nonprofit Foundation Communities recently went to New Orleans trying to establish ties and a process for verifying such claims. (Call 447-2026 for info.) ACORN (713/868-7015) has been doing similar work, and Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid (374-2747) offers free help with the appeals process as well. Also, a useful aid in appealing insufficient damage claims, a satellite imagery map of New Orleans, is available at mapper.cctechnol.com/floodmap.php. At the end of May, 215 evacuee families living in Austin will stop receiving FEMA rent and utility assistance. The city is still waiting to hear from the agency regarding how many of the last group of evacuees still getting such assistance about 900 families will qualify for continued rent help from the federal government, said Paul Hilgers, director of Austin's Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Office. Cheryl Smith
A National Science Foundation grant to the UT Center for Science and Mathematics Education will help the center track what makes good high school math and science tick or, more specifically, what training actually produces results in the classroom. The $286,000 grant will extend prior research already completed by Mary Hobbs, who coordinates the Texas Regional Collaboratives for Excellence in Science Teaching. Under the education legislation passed during the special session, entering high school students will be encouraged to take four years of both math and science. K.R.[This one goes under the National Science Foundation grant to the UT Center for Science and Mathematics Education Bullet]
In other UT research news, the College of Education's Vaughn Gross Center for Reading and Language Arts recently received $4 million from the Texas Education Agency "to develop and investigate intervention tools for struggling middle school readers" through the Texas Adolescent Literacy Project, a joint venture with the University of Houston, according to a UT press release. For more on the Vaughn Gross Center, see www.texasreading.org/utcrla/. - C.S.
Independent candidate for Texas governor Kinky Friedman handed over to the Texas Secretary of State's Office, on May 9, 11 boxes of petitions containing nearly 170,000 signatures of Texans who hope to secure Kinky a spot on the November election ballot. "Today, the people of Texas are sending a message to the politicians who have run our beloved state into the ground," Friedman told reporters. "Its time to take our state back from the Republicans and Democrats who've caused this train wreck." Friedman's quest for greatness, however, is bound by Texas' election code, which requires him (as well as Republican-turned-Democrat-turned-Indie Carole Keeton Strayhorn) to gather at least 45,539 signatures of valid, registered voters, none of whom may have voted in either party's primary election, in order to be certified to stand as an independent candidate in November's general election. With 169,574 signatures now on file with SOS Roger Williams' office, the Kinkster has cleared the first hurdle of the campaign season; and he's confident Williams will certify him as a candidate. In an effort to help move the verification process along, the Friedman campaign has loaded each signature into an electronic database. "We used our time and limited resources to work with [Williams'] office rather than against it. That's good government in action. That's how my campaign operates, and that's how this state will operate when I'm in charge not fighting one another but working together," Friedman said. J.S.
Beyond City Limits
In trying to appease everyone with his "five key points:" securing the border, a temporary worker program, new I.D cards, citizenship provisions, and encouraged assimilation, President Bush's prime-time televised speech succeeded instead in pissing everyone off. The "closed-borders" folks, who have the GOP leadership convinced that amnesty is a dirty word, are in a tizzy over the idea that "illegals" could have a chance at citizenship (it wouldn't be fair to those trying to gain citizenship legally, see). But, like our own Gov. Perry, they love the idea of deploying 6,000 National Guardsmen to the border though, as pointed out by the Associated Press, it would take 156,000 troops to maintain the proposed 6,000-strong Border Patrol support team. (But only until we get our "private contractors" out there! $50 says the Minutemen start charging.) Of course, those who are against the continuing militarization of the border think that all this is a terrible idea, pointing out that the proposed high tech fence and motion-detector-type gadgetry will only force migrants into more treacherous border crossings. Diana Welch
Despite taking some heat from Democrats, the Houston and Dallas school districts are making no apologies for supporting the school finance and reform deal in the lege. Even though the areas have strong urban delegations read "Democrats" the two largest school districts in the state sent letters to their delegations, asking them to concur on HB 1, the bill that contained most of the reform and equity measures. Those letters became fodder for much discussion, and a defense for Republicans, on the House floor on the day of the vote. Robby Collins, who represents the Dallas ISD, said HB 1 was far from perfect, but it did two things: It pushed property wealth limits up enough to take both Dallas and Houston out of the pool of districts sending money back to the state, and it gave them the much-coveted ability to have funding for flexible day scheduling which frequently refers to after-hours classes that districts offer to working students who return to pick up their high school diploma or GED. Combine that with the high school allotment almost $55 million in new money to DISD and the school reform bill began to look awfully good to his district, Collins said. K.R.
In other tax news, the Boerne school board has agreed, albeit reluctantly, to begin making its recapture payments to the state under what is often commonly referred to as the Robin Hood provision of the school finance system. Boerne took a stand against making those payments earlier this year, citing the Texas Supreme Court decision that certain aspects of the system were unconstitutional. This week, the attorney general's office issued an informal opinion on the issue, saying the court had extended the current system until its decision on the constitutionality of the Legislature's new funding proposal. Superintendent John Kelly said he was disappointed Boerne could not keep some of the $2.3 million it was supposed to send to the state, but he hoped that the new funding plan approved by the Legislature would significantly reduce the small rural school district's payments to the state. Had Boerne refused to make payments, the Texas Education Agency could have moved to transfer part of the district actual land and students to a neighboring district until the taxable size of Boerne actually matched its tax payments. K.R.
Also in tax news, Harris County Republicans passed a strongly-worded resolution this week to urge Gov. Rick Perry to veto the business tax in the recently passed House Bill 3, calling it an end run around the Constitution's prohibition of a state income tax. Many conservatives, such as Houston-based Texans for No New Taxes, have been beating the anti-tax bill drum, even going so far as to say that Perry has abandoned his conservative base and that they might have to go looking elsewhere for a candidate to endorse for governor. At a news conference on Tuesday, Perry made no apologies, saying the new business tax would be hailed as good public policy long into the future. Once voters knew the entirety of the tax package - a combination of business tax and property tax cuts - many supported it, Perry said. "When you talk about leadership, you don't just sit around on the sidelines and criticize. You come up with a plan, you lay that plan out, and you work diligently to see that plan pass. You don't just sit around and complain and gripe and bellyache without laying a plan out of your own," Perry said. - K.R.
The Texas General Land Office announced plans last Thursday to build the nation's largest offshore wind farm on 39,900 acres of state-owned submerged land in the Gulf of Mexico. Similar deals in places such as Massachusetts were stymied by well-connected coast-dwellers against windmill views. Private firm Superior Renewable Energy will lease the space near the Padre Island National Seashore from the state. Royalties totaling up to $100 million will go into the state's Permanent School Fund. After a four-year study, Superior could erect up to 100 windmills, capable of powering more than 125,000 homes. Compared to more-common West Texas windmills, offshore turbines are strongest on hot afternoons at peak demand times, and require much less transmission line construction. The Sierra Club's Donna Hoffman, representing statewide conservation and audubon groups concerned over dangers to migratory birds posed by the windmills' 400-foot-tall blades, said she supports the project and the goal of a wind-energy future but wants to see the project studied and executed correctly. Daniel Mottola