Headlines and happenings from Austin and beyond
"[J]urors clearly understood that companies with real assets and sound balance sheets don't just go poof as the result of a little bad press. We appreciate the free advertising, but the Journal isn't that powerful." Wall Street Journal editorial, May 26, on the criminal convictions of former Enron executives Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling. Attorneys for Lay and Skilling tried to blame the company's collapse on negative Journal articles.
Quote of the Week
Couldn't have happened to a nicer pair of guys: Former Enron executives Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling were convicted of a combined 29 counts of fraud, insider trading, conspiracy, and lying to auditors. Sentencing won't take place until September 11, but it's possible that the dynamic duo could spend the rest of their lives in prison. See p.26.
The arbitration hearing for former Austin police officer Julie Schroeder wrapped up Tuesday; a ruling is not due for at least a couple of weeks. Schroeder is seeking reinstatement to APD; she was fired last year after she shot 18-year-old drug-investigation suspect Daniel Rocha. See p.19.
Esther's Follies juggler Warren Schwartz, aka Red Ryder, was found stabbed to death Sunday morning. See "Naked City" below.
The Austin Chronicle, its editor Louis Black, and three other plaintiffs have filed a class-action lawsuit against telecom giant AT&T for handing over its clients' phone records to the National Security Agency for the warrantless tracking of the calls of millions of Americans. See "Point Austin."
Austin Police are investigating the murder of longtime Esther's Follies opening act, juggler extraordinaire Red Ryder (né Warren Schwartz), who was reportedly stabbed multiple times in the neck and back and died in the parking lot of the Travis Park Apartments on East Oltorf Street just before 6am on May 28. An Austin native (who was not a transient, as the Statesman has incorrectly reported), the 39-year-old Schwartz worked as the opening act for Esther's for nearly 20 years, a standing gig punctuated by worldwide performing engagements including stints in Monte Carlo, Japan, and Germany. Police are asking that anyone with information about Schwartz's murder call the APD Homicide tip line at 477-3588, or CrimeStoppers at 472-8477. Jordan Smith
Superintendent Pat Forgione on Tuesday proposed a 7.5% average raise for school employees as part of the 2006-07 budget. The plan puts the district only a few hundred dollars short of the raise proposal drafted by Education Austin, the local teacher's union. "We couldn't do a raise like this in the past," says Forgione. "The district has been living for three years out of its fund balance. Now we can, and we want to." The legislature mandated a $2,000 teacher raise in the recent special session and provided the district with $11 million from state coffers to cover it. On top of that, the district proposed kicking in another $27 million to increase the raise for teachers; boost the pay of employees who weren't covered by the legislation, such as bus drivers and custodians; and increase health insurance for all. Forgione also included one controversial proposal: devoting 1% of the money for incentives to keep teachers and staff in hard-to-fill positions. Because teacher groups tend to prefer across-the-board raises to incentives, that provision might get some feathers flying. Michael May
FEMA told the city of Austin on May 25 which members of the last group of Hurricane Katrina evacuees still receiving federal rent and utility assistance through Austin's Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Office qualified to continue receiving federal help. About 200 of the approximate 900 families in the group didn't qualify for further assistance, said Paul Hilgers, director of NHCD. Their cutoff deadline is currently July 31. Cheryl Smith
In other evacuee-limbo news, the 215 families in Austin who were slated to lose their FEMA public assistance at the end of May, along with evacuees in nine other Texas cities and one county, have received an assistance extension. According to a declaration filed by FEMA during a May 25 hearing in U.S. District Court in Houston the product of a class-action suit filed May 19 by a group of attorneys on behalf of six named evacuee plaintiffs the agency has approved an extension through at least June 30 for all evacuees still receiving public aid in Amarillo, Arlington, Austin, Dallas, El Paso, Grand Prairie, Houston, Lubbock, San Antonio, Texarkana, and Bell County. The cities and county had requested the extension. C.S.
Which would Advanced Micro Devices CEO Hector Ruiz prefer a new Hill Country campus located minutes away from his Barton Creek Country Club home, or a tasteful monument erected in his honor? If environmental doyenne Shudde Fath has her way, Ruiz would choose the latter, because it would serve as his reward for retreating from the Barton Springs watershed site where AMD plans to build its new corporate offices. Fath addressed the City Council last week on behalf of the Save Barton Creek Association, but she chose to put a positive spin on the group's recently passed resolution, which actually calls for a monument that admonishes Ruiz for disregarding the wishes of the community in choosing to build an 850,000 square-foot complex in the sensitive watershed. "Since I truly prefer the positive to the negative," Shudde told the council, I am proposing honors and accolades for Hector Ruiz, if he will recognize our community values and give up the watershed site." What say you, Hector? -- Amy Smith
And that watershed is important because it feeds into the Barton springs segment of the Edwards Aquifer, which is in "Alarm Stage" drought, and it will stay there unless we receive significant or prolonged amounts of rain, according to the Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer Conservation District. One of the drought indicators, Barton Springs, is flowing with 31 cubic feet of water per second, much less than the average 53 CFS, said BSEACD hydrogeologist Brian Hunt. Spring flows and levels in monitor wells briefly increased after rains in early May, but they have been steadily dropping since then. Currently, groundwater users, such as the cities of Buda and Kyle for example, are required to reduce usage by 20%. That could mean lawn-watering schedules or outright bans, said Hunt. Area sprawl development isn't necessarily to blame, he said, but likely exacerbates the situation. If dry conditions continue, the aquifer could reach critical stage by late summer, triggering 30% usage reductions and even lead to crackdowns on chronic water-wasters. The district is urging people to be water-wise at all times. Find more information at their Web site, www.bseacd.org. Daniel Mottola
Travis County commissioners caught between a loss of staff and an expansion in facilities will consider a number of options next week to reduce the county medical examiner office's autopsy caseload until additional permanent pathologists can be hired. Last week, Deputy Medical Examiner Elizabeth Peacock submitted her resignation. Medical Examiner Roberto Bayardo, under fire, already announced his retirement. Options under consideration next week include declining all cases outside the region currently served by StarFlight or the Capital Area Council of Governments; declining all cases from those counties farthest from Travis County; or declining all cases from Williamson County, which won little support among commissioners. Cases also could be cut proportionally across all of the two dozen counties now using Travis County for autopsies. The county's goal is to reduce caseloads by 20 cases per month, so that the current and on-call staff only need to complete four cases per day. Kimberly Reeves
Former Austin Police Officer Julie Schroeder's arbitration hearing testimony (see p.19) was interrupted Friday by an angry protester shouting that Schroeder is a "liar" and that she "killed someone" 18-year-old Daniel Rocha. The outburst came from Vida Fuerte Renteria, a member of the activist group People Organized in Defense of Earth and her Resources, and took everyone by surprise. PODER leader Susana Almanza characterized Renteria's outburst as an understandable welling of emotion, though the interruption appeared to be a planned protest. As Schroeder described the moments just before she initiated a traffic stop on the sport utility vehicle in which Rocha was a passenger, Renteria stood up and yelled "liar!" and then walked toward Schroeder. Renteria lifted his shirt perhaps to prove he was unarmed, although the motivation wasn't readily apparent. (Court records show Renteria has been arrested several times for felony assault including assault of a police officer and injury to an elderly person. Prosecutors dismissed at least two of the charges.) Schroeder quickly stood and several officers surrounded her as she slipped out a side door, as Renteria lay down on the floor moving his arms behind his back saying. "this is how you arrest an unarmed [person]." Renteria was arrested and charged with hindering proceedings by disorderly conduct, a Class A misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in state jail and/or a $4,000 fine. J.S.
Downtown is usually the battleground for tall towers, but now the Arboretum area has its own multistory residential project to fight. A tentative zoning hearing on a 12-story condominium project, Arboretum Towers, is on next week's council agenda. The project, developed by Paul DeNucci, would sit on Pavilion Boulevard between Highway 183 and Jollyville Road, next to a single-family neighborhood. The land currently is zoned for retail development. Neighbors promise a fight. The lobbying team backing the tower includes former Mayor Bruce Todd. K.R.
The new Precinct 4 office building on McKinney Falls Parkway could bear the name of Ramiro "Ray" Martinez, the Austin police officer who was the first to confront sniper Charles Whitman at the top of the University of Texas tower on August 1, 1966. Martinez's name was submitted for consideration. Now county officials must open nominations to all names, and the Travis County Historical Commission must review all submissions. The naming of the building could occur early this fall. Martinez, active in Texas Ranger historical activities, has written a book, They Call Me Ranger Ray. K.R.
Standing at the front podium in the Texas House, gubernatorial candidate Chris Bell continued his criticism of high-stakes testing in public schools Wednesday, but he might as well have been preaching to the choir. His audience was a fresh-faced crowd of high school students who, judging from their questions afterward, share the Democrat's views that standardized testing "shouldn't be the end-all, be-all of what we teach our kids." Bell spoke to student participants in the Junior Statesman of America's Texas Symposium on Leadership and Politics, a program designed to introduce the state's "best and brightest" teens to the rockin' world of Lone Star politics. Bell spoke to the group the same day Gov. Rick Perry signed House Bill 1 into law, which, in addition to cutting property taxes by one-third, will establish a merit-pay track for teachers whose students show marked improvement on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills test. "Accountability entails a lot more than numbers on a standardized test," Bell said. If elected governor, Bell said he would appoint a bipartisan commission to take a hard look at public education in Texas and try to move schools away from "teaching to the test." Bell later fielded questions from students. A Waco High School student noted that his school has the second lowest TAKS score in Texas, and he suggested that alternative teaching methods might serve to motivate students. At that moment, an "Aha!" look seem to cross Bell's face. "You've said exactly what I've been talking about," he told the student, "in a much more concise form." A.S.
Beyond City Limits
You know things aren't up to par on the privatization front when newspapers in distant states point to Texas as an example of what not to do, in recounting how a private contractor botched its job with the Texas Health and Human Services Commission. The May 27 edition of the Fort Wayne, Ind., Journal Gazette pointed out that Texas lawmakers are putting the heat on the project's lead contractor, Bermuda-based Accenture, to clean up its $899 million act (although the newspaper didn't mention that Gov. Rick Perry insists that everything will work out fine in the end). Indiana officials are considering awarding a similar contract to Accenture, but the Fort Wayne newspaper and other dailies are holding up Texas, as well as other states where Accenture has left its mark, as an example of how ambitious experiments like this one at HHSC can end up smelling like hydrogen sulfide gas. Rotten eggs, in other words. "If Accenture's misadventure in Texas didn't give [Indiana] officials pause, it should have," the paper warned, adding, "Agency officials should try to find out what went wrong in Texas and what if anything went right." A.S.
Texas emits more carbon dioxide than the UK, Canada, or Italy, and more than any other U.S. state, yet most of Texas' legislative leaders have been conspicuously absent from discussions on global warming, and there's no plan to stop it, slow it, or deal with the consequences, stated the report Fair Warning: Global Warming and the Lone Star State, released last week by the activist group Environmental Defense. Without action, the report foretold that global warming would bring about more heat waves, worsened air quality, increased risk of disease, droughts, unpredictable severe weather, wildfires, and coastal erosion, not to mention an unprecedented strain on Texas' already-scarce water supply. Co-author Colin Rowan described the predicted browning of Central Texas, in which Austin would look more like parts of West Texas. Global warming's full wrath isn't intractable, though. The report lists a series of recommendations from individual conservation to employer incentives for telecommuting to mandated building efficiency standards. "The biggest role Austin can play is what folks at the Capitol do," Rowan said, urging citizens to vote wisely for candidates who will address the problem by forcing utilities to clean up their act, or enacting clean-car standards (like 10 other states have). Read the full report at www.environmentaldefense.org/go/tx/texaswarming. D.M.
In a messy but quick end to the legislative session, a number of loose ends were not tied, including a proposal to "float" property-tax relief for those seniors and the disabled who already are under a tax freeze. The proposal, an amendment and companion constitutional amendment to House Bill 1, would have allowed a proportional rollback of frozen tax rates. So, say, if a homeowner were frozen at a tax rate of $1.20, that tax rate could ultimately be rolled back to $1. But as Rep. Elliott Naishtat, D-Austin, noted in a message to constituents this week, an unresolved disagreement over whether and how that tax cap should also rise, as well as drop, left seniors high and dry. The companion constitutional amendment failed to pass the Senate Finance Committee. Naishtat says that the failure which he blames on political maneuvering to add to the constituency to vote against school-district tax-rate increases has left 1.3 million seniors and people with disabilities without tax relief. K.R.
Who knew that Carole Keeton Strayhorn's own grandchildren serve as her political weather vanes? If that's the case, Rick Perry should box up the Governor's Mansion now and get on down the road because there's a new Strayhorn grandbaby in town. Audrey Page McClellan, Strayhorn's sixth grandchild, was born May 26 to Dudley and Julie McClellan. "Mom has never lost an election in a year when a grandbaby was born," Brad McClellan, Strayhorn's son, campaign manager, and twin brother of Dudley, said in a statement. A.S.
Forty-five boxes of computers and supplies were returned to the Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization's Pastors for Peace group last Thursday, 10 months after the items which were part of a humanitarian shipment destined for disabled Cuban children were seized on the Texas/Mexico border by U.S. Customs agents, reportedly acting on orders from the U.S. Commerce Department. "They could not defend their actions," said the Rev. Lucius Walker, executive director of the IFCO in a statement. The IFCO threatened federal lawsuit over the seizure. Walker added, "The Bush administration's Cuba strategy is bankrupt and based on a repugnant policy to create hardship for the Cuban people." Bush's harsh persistence of the Cuban embargo has elicited worldwide criticism. The statement continued, "after consultation with IFCO's church partners in Cuba, Pastors for Peace has decided to donate the released computers to the New Orleans Survivors' Council," to be used at reopened schools in the ravished lower Ninth Ward. "Organizers in New Orleans remember well Cuba's offer of 1,600 doctors to assist victims of the hurricane. They also remember that the U.S. government ignored the offer despite the criminal neglect that followed the storm." D.M.
AISD-watchers are used to hand-wringing over the "achievement gap" the difference in test scores between white students and minorities that persistently dogs the 80,000-student district. On Wednesday, June 7, AISD will hold a panel discussion with academics from across the country to try to address the problem at its root. The event is part of a three-year study, funded by the local RGK Foundation, that compares AISD to best practices across the country. "We're doing a lot of things right," says Bret Cormier, the RGK Grant Project Facilitator for AISD. "But we can do some things better. We need to specifically train our teachers and administrators to better accommodate different cultures." The district has been holding seminars all year for principals; this panel will allow the public to share their experiences with the experts. The forum will take place at 6pm in the Reagan High School auditorium (7104 Berkman). M.M.
The Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization's just-released Texas Metropolitan Mobility Plan may get a bit more scrutiny this year, given the opposition of a number of local groups to toll projects. The plan, a long-range, needs-based assessment for the region, suggests that a failure to build roads could lengthen today's 30-minute commute to one hour and 21 minutes by 2030. Three open houses, all 6-8pm, are scheduled Monday, June 5, at the Round Rock Public Library; Wednesday, June 7, at One Texas Center at 525 Barton Springs Road; and Thursday, June 9, at the San Marcos Public Library. K.R.
Three thousand fliers hit the streets last week to announce the grand opening of Travis County's newest park, East Metropolitan. Approved in the 2001 bond election, phase one is not quite complete the baseball (adult and little league) and soccer fields, as well as the disc golf course, won't open until late this summer. When Travis County commissioners cut the ribbon this Saturday, however, the 300-acre park will still have plenty to offer, including a basketball court, hike-and-bike trails, multipurpose fields, catch-and-release fishing ponds, playscapes, concessions, and the YMCA-run pool that opened last summer. Thanks to last November's bond election, phase two begins this month, adding a community center, urban orchard, and tennis and shuffleboard courts to the mix. According to district park manager Dan Perry, East Metro which is about halfway between Manor and Webberville offers welcome recreation to an area that has "no major park facilities," not to mention a rapidly growing population. The third of four similar Metropolitan Park projects (after Del Valle's and Pflugerville's), its design and layout evolved collaboratively through the county's public outreach efforts. To see it for yourself, along with the official Commissioners' Court sendoff, head out to 18667 Blake-Manor Rd. Saturday, June 3, and meet at the basketball pavilion at 10am. Nora Ankrum
The Green Party of Texas will hold its 2006 state convention at the Pearl Street Co-op, located at 2000 Pearl (in West Campus), June 9-11. Activities June 9 will include trainings and workshops; on June 10 delegates will nominate candidates for statewide office; and June 11 will be devoted to delegate's amendments to the state party platform and bylaws. For more info, call 473-8351 or e-mail email@example.com.