Headlines and happenings from Austin and beyond
"It is incredible that the District Attorney's office is thwarted in their efforts to prosecute public officials because they are allowed to hide behind the lax and vague codes of the Texas Ethics Commission. ... We question whether it is really an independent, nonpartisan, and effective agent for the enforcement of the ethics of public officials." The 390th Travis Co. grand jury, in a report to Judge Julie Kocurek on state campaign-finance laws
Quote of the Week
The City Council returns from summer hiatus today (Thursday) to address a mere 153 agenda items, including such troubling measures as wastewater-treatment plant funding, red light traffic cameras, a few dozen zoning hearings, and (oh yeah) the proposed 2006-07 budget
bring your sleeping bags. See "Beside the Point."
The final post-municipal election Contribution & Expenditure reports were filed last week with the City Clerk, confirming a cool million spent by all sides in the battle over Propositions 1 and 2. That kind of change could buy a whole lotta improvements to Barton Springs Pool.
At press time, owners of Las Manitas Avenue Cafe and other small businesses in the 200 block of Congress were meeting with representatives of the pending Marriott convention hotel development planned for the property, in hopes of working out some accommodation to help preserve the community's heritage. See "Escuelita Graduates."
Travis Co. District Judge Gisela Triana ruled on July 19 that the city violated the free speech and assembly rights of members of the activist Democracy Coalition in 2001 when Austin police barred them from gathering across the street from the Governor's Mansion to protest against President George W. Bush. The ruling, at the end of a three-day trial last week (the second time in three years that the case has been heard in Travis Co. court), cites the city for discrimination against the protesters, but does not award any monetary damages, nor require police to rewrite any specific policies. The activists claimed that APD, by enforcing city policy and procedure, violated their free-speech rights by denying them access to the traditional protest area directly across from the Governor's Mansion even though pro-Bushies had been allowed to cross to show their support for the prez. Although a jury in 2003 cleared two APD officers from any individual liability in the case, District Judge Margaret Cooper pre-emptively removed the city from that suit, thereby blocking jurors from considering whether any city "custom, policy, or practice" of dealing with protesters had violated their rights of free speech and free assembly. The activists appealed, and the 3rd Court of Appeals ruled that Cooper had erred and that the protesters had a right to have a jury decide the matter. Jordan Smith
With council anxious to get the meter running, it looks like a lottery drawing names out of a hat will indeed be how the city selects its newest taxi franchise. In response to the acquisition of Roy's Taxi by Yellow Cab, the city created 55 taxi permits for a new cab company; three companies Capital City, Lone Star, and Longhorn applied and were found to have met the minimum qualifications. Having met these meager requirements, under changes to the city charter in 2003, the franchise stands to be awarded via lottery. The system seemed haphazard to the urban transportation commission, whose members rapidly assembled a subcommittee to change the award process to a more ranked, weighted system. But they may have run out of time; going into today's meeting, it appears Councilmember Mike Martinez doesn't have the votes to opt out of the system. Of course, council is under no directive to act, so if Martinez's motion finds a second (and third, and fourth), the decision could be delayed. Wells Dunbar
When council returns from hiatus today, July 27, it's one day after a historic occasion for disabled Americans: July 26 marks the 26th anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act. To commemorate the day, the Austin Mayor's Committee for People With Disabilities has honored eight businesses for their commitment to accessibility. They include the AMC 14 Barton Creek, Amy's Ice Creams on South Congress, Jo's Hot Coffee, Mangia Pizza's Burnet Road location, Nordstrom, Opal Divine's Penn Field, Schlotzsky's West Canyon Drive store, and Sears Grand. The news isn't all good, however yesterday, the Texas Civil Rights Project filed 16 lawsuits across the state against establishments they feel don't meet ADA code, including three popular Austin haunts: Oilcan Harry's, Vicci, and Six Lounge, partially owned by Lance Armstrong. W.D.
Seventeen Garza High School students "graduated" July 21 from the joint AISD/APD CSI: Garza forensic science program. The six-week program offers students class instruction on a host of forensic science topics including crime-scene investigation, crime-scene photography, evidence collection, bloodstain-pattern and fingerprint identification, and DNA analysis. The program is an effort to attract students to forensic science careers and has developed a partnership with Huston-Tillotson University that will offer Garza CSI grads additional education and training. J.S.
The Housing Authority of Travis County was recognized with four awards by the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials at the group's recent annual conference in Denver. Two of the awards are administration-related, largely recognizing the authority's innovation in affordable housing planning, while the other two recognize specific housing efforts: the authority's work in finding affordable housing for Hurricane Katrina evacuees, and a program the authority runs with the Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation, in which mentally disabled clients are placed in housing authority duplexes. Cheryl Smith
The Republican Party has stepped up efforts to have its onetime hero, former U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay, removed from the November ballot. Last week, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott entered the fray, filing a brief with the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, arguing that U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks erred when he determined that the state Republican Party doesn't have authority to declare DeLay ineligible for the ballot, after the congressman resigned his seat in June and officially transferred his residency to Virginia. DeLay still maintains a home in Sugar Land. Attorneys for the state Democratic Party argue that DeLay's actions were simply a ploy to let the state GOP hand-pick a replacement nominee to run for the congressional seat against Democrat Nick Lampson of Houston. The Harris Co. Republican Party is also circulating a petition urging the federal appeals court to reverse Sparks' ruling. In other DeLay developments, the ex-congressman will pay a $115,000 fine for campaign-finance violations and shutter his once-powerful fundraising arm Americans for a Republican Majority as part of an agreement struck with the Federal Election Commission. The FEC's investigation into ARMPAC stemmed from a complaint filed by the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. Amy Smith
Beyond City Limits
Despite all the public hand-wringing, Texas colleges and universities are failing to meet the state's goal of substantially increasing the enrollment of Latino students. A report by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board shows the number of Latino students in higher education grew by just more than 11,000 from 2004 to 2005 the smallest increase in five years. The THECB had set a target to enroll 340,000 Latino students by 2005, as part of its "Closing The Gaps" initiative, but Texas schools fell short by more than 20,000. Some local institutions are working to do their part. Austin Community College is aggressively targeting first-generation college students as part of its "College Connection" program in local high schools. Michael May
Democrat Chris Bell last week rolled out a four-part environmental platform that would, among other things, dismantle some Austin-bashing state laws that give developers the edge in challenging local water-quality and land-use regulations. The enviro plank would also elevate the role of local community leaders in decisions ranging from urban sprawl to inner-city neighborhood planning. If the proposals sound like they were made in Austin, a good many of them were, in fact, crafted with assistance from local environmental advocates, as well as Austin-based leaders of several state organizations. But the hot-button issue of late concerns Gov. Rick Perry's decision to put a rush on the permitting process of proposed coal-fired power plants, 16 of which would land in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, with TXU leading the charge on 11 of them. Bell chided Perry's pollution record during a series of campaign stops last week as he unveiled his "Healthy Texas Environmental Tour," and called on the governor to end his policy of fast-tracking the state permitting of coal-fired plants, which pollute the air and wreak havoc on the health of children, older adults, and others with unstable immune systems. A.S.
Independent gubernatorial candidate Carole Keeton Strayhorn echoed many of Bell's clean-air comments this week in a far-reaching environmental statement released Monday, vowing if elected to reverse Gov. Perry's executive order fast-tracking the permitting of new coal-burning power plants, and promising to "change the state's permitting process in order to fight air pollution," and "look to clean-burning natural gas, wind energy, other renewables and energy conservation" to meet the state's electricity needs. Strayhorn also came out in favor of drastically cleaner coal gasification, a technology none of the proposed Texas plants currently employ. Democratic opponent Chris Bell's campaign was quick to point out the $43,000 in contributions Strayhorn received from coal-burning utilities from 2000-2005. Tom "Smitty" Smith of Public Citizen, a point-man in the fight against the coal plants, said Strayhorn's "on the right track," commending her for being the first candidate to mention global-warming-inducing CO2, noting that while industry contributions are always suspicious, Strayhorn's coal-reform comments all but guarantee such political giving will stop, while demonstrating that she'll take the issue seriously. Strayhorn's campaign couldn't be reached at press time. Daniel Mottola
Third Court of Appeals candidate Mina Brees is recovering from a heart attack suffered July 23 at her South Austin home. Brees, a Democrat, will undergo corrective surgery next week, and doctors expect her to make a full recovery to continue her run for office, according to the campaign. She is challenging incumbent Republican David Puryear. Brees, 56, reportedly suffered chest pains while doing yard work in 100-degree heat. A.S.
Endorsing the establishment of a U.S. cabinet-level Department of Peace and Non-Violence, the American Ethical Union a nationwide organization dating back to 1876, whose founding principle is that the supreme aim of human life is to create a more humane society announced this and other resolutions passed at its 2006 national assembly. The Department of Peace concept was conceived by U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich in his 2004 presidential campaign and took the form of HR 3760, presented to Congress in 2005. The AEU also passed a resolution opposing the Iraq war and called on the U.S. government to treat enemy combatants in accord with the Geneva Convention, renounce intentions of establishing permanent bases in Iraq, quickly draw down and remove forces, relinquish all Iraqi natural resources and public goods to the country's duly elected government, and encourage multinational agencies to manage reconstruction. D.M.
According to information obtained last week by The Salt Lake Tribune, Leroy Jeffs the elder brother of fugitive polygamist prophet Warren Jeffs, head of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been sitting in federal prison in Arizona since April in connection with his refusal to testify before a grand jury investigating the polygamist church. Leroy Jeffs served as the FLDS's lead accountant, and as such has the skinny on details of life inside the secretive church including info on its vast property holdings, its tithing scheme, and detailed records of the sect's plural marriages, reports the Tribune. Last year Warren Jeffs who has been on the lam for nearly a year, dodging state and federal charges for arranging marriages between married men and teen girls reportedly banished big bro Leroy to Oklahoma to "repent" and then reassigned Leroy's wife and children to other men in the church, the daily reports. Leroy was served a subpoena at home in Oklahoma earlier this year but has refused to testify as have four others; all five remain in federal custody on contempt charges. J.S.
The film "Who Killed the Electric Car?" which, in murder-mysterylike fashion, investigates why General Motors' popular, emission-free electric car has disappeared opens this Friday in Austin at the Arbor Cinema at Great Hills. The story goes like this: Inspired by a 1990 GM announcement of an electric vehicle prototype, the state of California's Air Resources Board created the Zero Emissions Mandate, requiring 2% of vehicles sold statewide to be emissions free by 1998 and 10% by 2003, in response to the state's auto exhaust-driven pollution crisis. The GM EV1 was launched in 1996 and was hugely popular, requiring no gas or oil changes and infrequent maintenance, while costing the equivalent of three cents per gallon to operate. Thanks to bogus grassroots PR attacks and lawsuits from automakers and oil companies throughout the 1990s, the Zero Emissions Mandate was marginalized. GM took back its fleet of leased EV1s and by 2006, most of them had been crushed in the Arizona desert. For more info, see www.whokilledtheelectriccarmovie.com. The Austin Area Electric Automobile Association will have several Electric Cars in the Arbor parking lot on Friday from 5-10pm, and Saturday from 11am-10pm. www.austinev.org. D.M.
Though the anti-war movement has never truly waned here in Austin, this month is seeing a resurgence of action. As part of Troops Home Fast, the hunger-strike initiative that brought Danny Glover, Cindy Sheehan, Alice Walker, and a bunch of hungry others to the White House lawn earlier this month, the Austin chapter of CodePink will join in a rolling, two-month fast ending on or around International Peace Day, Sept. 21. Check out who's taking part each Friday, from 4-6pm, when the fasters gather to sit vigil at the south entrance of the Capitol. See www.troopshomefast.org for more info.
Thousands of Austinites took to the streets this spring to protest draconian immigration measures passed by the U.S. House. The legislation is still being debated in Washington, but there's more to be done right here in Austin. The Austin Immigrants Rights Coalition is holding a public forum for concerned citizens and worried immigrants on Thursday, July 27 at 7pm at Cristo Rey Catholic Church, 2201 E. Second.
The mandatory bike helmet ordinance rages on at 7pm Tuesday, Aug. 1, in a debate at the Alamo Drafthouse South, 1120 S. Lamar. Squaring off against the ordinance will be Patrick Goetz, a member of the city's Transportation Commission, co-founder of the League of Bicycling Voters, and a leader in the fight to roll back the original short-lived ordinance in the mid-1990s. Speaking in favor of the ordinance is Bruce Todd, the former Austin mayor (1991-97), who spearheaded passage of the original ordinance and last year gained firsthand insight into the issue by falling off his bike and severely busting up his head, which required a lengthy hospital stay. Admission is $8 at the door or in advance at www.dionysium.com.
The Travis Co. Sheriff's Office, in partnership with Texans in Motion, hosts a child safety seat inspection Wednesday, Aug. 2. When properly installed, child safety seats significantly reduce the likelihood that an infant or young child will die in a car wreck, yet 80% of car seats are improperly installed and on average, TCSO reports, parents make three installation mistakes. The safety inspection is free but requires an appointment; call 854-4194.