Headlines and happenings from Austin and beyond
"She can call herself Carole Cougar Mellencamp if she wants, but when it comes to the ballot she should have to follow the law." Kinky Friedman, challenging his fellow independent gubernatorial candidate's request to be listed as Carole Keeton "Grandma" Strayhorn on the November ballot. A nickname must have been in use for three years to be listed on a ballot. Richard Friedman has been known as "Kinky" for 40 years; Strayhorn has used "One Tough Grandma" as a campaign slogan.
Quote(s) of the Week
"Just like people have seen that we don't really need a joke for a governor, they've also realized we don't need a governor just for jokes." Gubernatorial candidate Chris Bell to the Texas Democratic Convention, jabbing both Republican Gov. Rick Perry and Kinky
There's no City Council meeting today (Thursday), which is just as well, since everybody's still recovering from last week's marathon session lasting into Friday morning. For more on the November bond ballot, mobile food vendors, and the still-in-progress McMansion ordinance, see "Point Austin" and "Beside the Point."
Last Thursday also marked the final Council meeting for Mayor Pro Tem Danny Thomas and Council Member Raul Alvarez, both stepping down after a term-limited six years on the dais.
In two cases, the Supreme Court ruled that a Florida death-row inmate can pursue his challenge of execution by lethal injection, and that a Tennessee inmate can get a new hearing based on DNA and other evidence unavailable at the time of his conviction.
The Texas Fair Defense Project has filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of all misdemeanor defendants who have been denied legal representation in county courts, even when they are indigent and unable to hire an attorney. "The Williamson County Courts completely fail to meet public expectations of how a fair and impartial court system should work," said Dominic Gonzales of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition.
The World Cup international futból championship tournament began last week, so little work is getting done around here.
Lawyers for the Texas Democratic Party and the Republican Party of Texas will square off in court June 22 as a Travis Co. judge weighs whether Tom DeLay's name or that of a replacement candidate appears on the November ballot. Democrats want the fallen ex-congressman's name to remain on the ballot, and last week District Judge Darlene Byrne agreed to temporarily halt the state GOP from wiping the slate clean and tapping another candidate for the ballot. GOP lawyers say DeLay, who faces criminal charges for his role in the 2002 state legislative races, is not eligible for ballot placement because he has taken up permanent residence in Virginia. Amy Smith
Where does public life end and private life begin? That's the question several Austinites are wrestling with this week, as the saga of suspended Austin High School art teacher Tamara Hoover develops. The 29-year-old was suspended last month when it came to the school district's attention that dozens of pictures of her were posted on the Web site of photographer Celesta Danger, including several topless photos. On Hoover's MySpace blog, she writes, "The website is artistic photography and very good at that," and that she "never told kids to 'go see me' at the website." In discussion generated by the incident at online forums, several participants think it naive of Hoover to think the photos would have no repercussions. But many more think the punishment facing her is far too severe. Wells Dunbar
It's OK to love the atheist just don't let him darken the membership rolls of the church, a governing body of Presbyterian churches warned an Austin pastor at a hearing last week in San Antonio. The Rev. Jim Rigby of St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church in North Austin, and his alleged partner in crime, UT journalism professor Robert Jensen, an activist and avowed atheist, have been the target of scorn since Jensen became a member of Rigby's socially progressive church last December, and then wrote about his decision to join a "moral and political community." While the South Texas Mission Presbytery, the group that took the disciplinary action, effectively voided Jensen's active membership, he is technically still a member pending the church's appeal of the decision. A.S.
Who knew illegal gambling was such a thriving industry in Austin? Apparently the APD did. On June 8, APD officers, working with the Travis Co. Sheriff's Office and the Travis Co. Attorney's Office, executed 23 search warrants at gaming rooms and convenience stores across Austin, seizing nearly 1,000 illegal gaming machines. The most recent investigation, Operation Flatliner (not to be confused with last year's Operation Casino Flush, which netted police more than 700 machines), was spurred by a spate of complaints from people who'd lost money gambling at fixed machines rigged so that they don't make regular, or large, payouts, reports APD. Jordan Smith
Austin City Hall may seem an unlikely setting for conservative U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith to stage a press conference, but he knew he'd be playing to a friendly crowd Monday with his announcement of a major piece of solar energy legislation that he planned to file the next day in Washington. The San Antonio Republican, running for re-election against Democrat John Courage, is championing his Solar Utilization Now Act, or SUN Act, for short, as a security blanket of sorts. "This bill is good for our energy security, national security, and environmental security," he said. The proposal would encourage states to hitch up with private companies to compete for federal grants, which would enable them to buy solar energy panels at cut-rate prices. States would be required to contribute at least 10% of the funding, while the feds and private companies would kick in the rest. Courage supporters, meanwhile, were also on hand for Monday's press conference, and his San Antonio campaign office was quick to crank out a press release enumerating several Smith votes opposing progressive energy-related legislation. Smith's 21st District includes parts of Austin and western Travis Co. A.S.
Don't tell Fido and Fluffy, but local spay/neuter nonprofit EmanciPet (www.emancipet.org) received a hefty chunk of change from grant-making organization Impact Austin last week. The $108,000 will go toward "a third surgical suite at EmanciPet's stationary hospital, as well as two transport vehicles for pick-up and drop-off of animals before and after their spay/neuter surgeries," according to a press release, which estimates the grant will help the organization snip as many as 10,000 more critters a year. EmanciPet was one of three groups to get 2006 Impact Austin grants; the other two were the Children's Wellness Center and Literacy Austin. Cheryl Smith
After reporting success helping low-income families with their taxes this past April, Community Tax Centers, a program of the Foundation Communities nonprofit, has announced the launch of a year-round program offer of free tax services to those same families. CTC is now taking appointments for free tax services at its 3036 S. First location. Individuals and families who make $50,000 a year or less are eligible for assistance, including preparation of current, prior year, and amended federal income tax returns; federal and state tax returns for hurricane evacuees; and other tax services. Eligible taxpayers can call 2-1-1 for info on how to make an appointment and what documents to bring. Flexible hours and Spanish-speaking volunteers are available. Lee Nichols
Comptroller Carole Strayhorn rolled out a new gizmo Tuesday that allows Texas companies to calculate how much they'll have to pay under a new business tax that Gov. Rick Perry recently signed into law. The calculator is available on the comptroller's Web site (www.window.state.tx.us). In introducing the new service, Strayhorn, who's running as an independent against Republican Gov. Perry, didn't hesitate to blast the tax package, which she says will stretch the state's budget thin within a year, create hardships for small businesses, and run afoul of the state constitution in forcing partnerships to pay an income tax. The new tax package, which Legislators passed in a special session this spring, follows the Texas Supreme Court's mandate to eliminate the state's heavy reliance on property taxes to fund public education, and is designed to lower property taxes by one third. Perry's campaign spokesman Robert Black dismissed Strayhorn's calculator and her criticism of the tax bill. "The less relevant Carole Strayhorn becomes in this election," he said, "the angrier she gets and the more she resorts to political gimmicks." A.S.
Beyond City Limits
The controversy over Bexar Co. District Attorney Susan Reed's probe into the possible wrongful conviction and execution of Ruben Cantu, a case over which Reed presided as a district judge, intensified last week when another San Antonio judge ruled June 9 that despite Reed's seemingly clear conflict of interest, he has no power to remove her from the (alleged) investigation into the Cantu case. The ruling came in response to a hearing prompted by a co-defendant in the Cantu case, David Garza, who at first fingered Cantu as an accomplice, but later recanted, instead insisting that Cantu was innocent. Reed's office subpoenaed Garza to testify before a grand jury investigating the case, even though prosecutors are already in possession of an affidavit of Garza's testimony, prompting concern that the real motive for his summons was to explore a possible perjury charge against him. Cantu steadfastly maintained his innocence in the 1984 robbery-slaying of Pedro Gomez but was convicted and in 1993 executed for the crime, based at least in part on the testimony of alleged accomplice Garza. Judge Mark Luitjen's ruling means Reed won't be disqualified for the time being from handling the Cantu inquiry; whether Garza will be compelled to testify or face a contempt of court charge is under negotiation with the Bexar Co. DA's office, says Garza's attorney Keith Hampton. J.S.
Since the Democrats' lame-ass "We Can Do Better" motto was rightly laughed off the airwaves, there hasn't been much pep talk from the Weak Side. But now, with the November elections looming, Dems are scrabbling to find some momentum to take back the White House and Congress. With that in mind, a number of Dem leaders including '08 contenders Hillary Clinton and John Kerry gathered at the annual Take Back America conference, the goal of which is to give the "progressive majority" a voice in Washington. Not surprisingly, Clinton didn't get the warmest reception her war-hawk voting record and refusal to back troop withdrawal has tarnished her image on the left but she did garner a few hoots and hollers with her support for the Voting Rights Act and her reference to "what happened in Ohio." Other folks who spoke were Barack Obama, who seems to be reconsidering his previous demurring of the bid; Senators Nancy Pelosi, Russ Feingold, and Harry Reid; and scads of progressive activists and thinkers, including The Nation's Katrina vanden Heuvel, hip-hop activist and The Source writer Biko Baker, and author Barbara Ehrenreich. Here's to hoping. For more on the conference, go to home.ourfuture.org/tba06. Diana Welch
The Worldwatch Institute (www.worldwatch.org), an environmental research and publishing organization, was commissioned by the German government to assess the ramifications of large-scale use of biofuels around the globe. Last week the organization released report "Biofuels for Transportation: Global Potential and Implications for Sustainable Agriculture and Energy in the 21st Century." The study predicted an unprecedented increase in the production and use of biofuels, which it said could be a solution to intractable global issues, including rising oil prices, increasing global insecurity, climate instability, worsening pollution levels, and deepening poverty in rural and agricultural areas. The report warned, though, that a poorly planned transition to cultivating fuel feedstock could lead to competition for scarce resources, straining Earth's already-stressed life-support systems. The report placed great importance on cellulosic ethanol, a fuel that can be derived from plant stalks, leaves, wood, and nonfood crops that can be grown on degraded lands. The report also mentioned biodiesel, which can be made from an even broader range of energy crops or waste streams. These advanced biofuels could substitute 37% of U.S. gasoline use within 25 years, the report said, with the figure rising to 75% if vehicle fuel efficiency were doubled. Daniel Mottola
The 17th Annual Travis County and city of Austin employee's Juneteenth celebration is this Friday at Woolridge Park. Festivities, taking place 11am-2pm, include food, crafts, and entertainment by DJ Rocky Rock and gospel singer Acacia Jennings. Travis Co. Judge Sam Biscoe and Commissioner Ron Davis host the event, which is open to everyone.
Say what you will about Greg Palast: He's a mouthy self-promoter, a conspiracy hunter, a kook. But somewhere on that list, you've got to include excellent reporter, one who backs up his impressive findings with scores of original (Secret! Confidential!) documents. Who can blame him for coming off as a mouthy self-promoter when he has legitimately and repeatedly uncovered the crookedness of those in control (corporations, governments) to a public who refuses to look? What investigative reporter shouldn't be a conspiracy hunter in times of rampant conspiracy? (The kook part, well, that's just personality, and frankly, it's what many of today's scribes lack.) Palast will be in town to promote his new book, Armed Madhouse: Who's Afraid of Osama Wolf?, China Floats, Bush Sinks, The Scheme to Steal '08, No Child's Behind Left, and Other Dispatches From the Front Lines of Class War, in which the BBC's award-winning journalist peels back the skin on, among other things, both of Bush's plans to steal Iraq's oil, the Right's lock on the presidency in 2008, and why Hugo Chavez really needs to be wearing that Kevlar. Palast will appear at First Unitarian Universalist Church, 4700 Grover, Sunday, June 18, 3-5pm. For more info on Palast, see www.gregpalast.com.