Headlines and happenings from Austin and beyond
"Riding a bike is a privilege, not a right, and ... we must pay for that privilege by being safe."
Quote of the Week
Former Mayor Bruce Todd, advocating a bike helmet law
"The city should be encouraging people to ride bikes by providing safer and more accommodating roads for bicyclists, rather than attempting to dictate that every adult wear more body armor while riding a bike."
Rob D'Amico, League of Bicycling Voters
City Council doesn't meet this week, and Mayor Wynn is visiting Turkey (in search of a sister city), but council members have begun wrestling with the proposed city budget, presented last week by City Manager Toby Futrell. It's a Better Days budget, with rising income and more possibilities to increase city services, at a lower tax rate. See p.20, and "Point Austin," right.
Also heating up on council's back burner is former Mayor Bruce Todd's post-coma proposal for a return to the mandatory bicycle helmet law repealed a decade ago. Todd debated bike advocate Patrick Goetz on the issue Tuesday night; the Dionysium sponsored the event. Council holds a public hearing on the issue Aug. 24.
A three-judge panel of the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals was reportedly skeptical Monday that former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay is ineligible to appear on the November ballot. Texas Democrats won a lower court decision that the Texas GOP could not replace DeLay's name with another simply because he says he's moved to Virginia because what matters to the Constitution is where he lives on Election Day.
Despite growing international calls for a cease-fire (and U.S. and UK resistance), the war in Lebanon continues to rage, marked most recently by an Israeli bombing attack Sunday that killed at least 54 civilians, including 37 children. Retired Canadian Gen. Lewis MacKenzie, a former UN peace force commander, told the Toronto Star, "This region is on a very short fuse. The potential for a doomsday scenario of widening war is so horrendous that large powerful nations will do everything they can to stop it. They can't afford to do otherwise."
In a two-page July 25 memo to the mayor and council, Assistant City Manager Rudy Garza reports that APD acting Chief Cathy Ellison did not violate any department policies in connection with her leaving her duty pistol in her city-owned car in December when she dropped the car off for service. According to a complaint filed by Melvin Schulze, a fleet services employee, Ellison was rude to him when she called to check on the car and was told it had been taken to a Ford dealership to be repaired. In his memo apparently, to avoid any "ambiguity" Garza lays out a clear, if not stunningly obvious, rule that, in the future, officers are required to remove any weapons from their cars before dropping them off for service. Jordan Smith
Forty-three percent of traffic fatalities in the unincorporated areas of Travis Co. involve speeders, reports the Travis Co. Sheriff's Office. A review of the circumstances surrounding the 33 such traffic deaths since January 2005 by Sheriff Greg Hamilton also revealed that 21% of the wrecks involved alcohol and 27% of the victims were not wearing a seat belt. Other driver-error factors like driving on the wrong side of the road and failure to yield right-of-way were involved in 48% of the accidents, TCSO reports. J.S.
The state released its school accountability ratings Wednesday, and 29 Austin schools were rated either exemplary or recognized, up from 29 last year. Still, the district's results were mixed. On the one hand, Harris and Sims elementary schools, which were overhauled under the Blueprint Initiative in 2002, received recognized ratings. However, Johnston High, the test case for the district's ambitious high school redesign plan, was deemed academically unacceptable again, although test scores did show some improvement. Johnston High and Webb Middle School have now received the unacceptable rating for three years in a row, which means the state could sanction, restructure, or even close the schools. "Every year, Texas' testing and accountability landscape changes," said Superintendent Pat Forgione. "Across the state, these tougher standards are a significant challenge to urban districts such as ours districts with a majority of high-needs students. There are no easy solutions to creating successful schools but there are no excuses either." Michael May
The taco wars rage on. The Planning Commission subcommittee on codes and ordinances met Monday to refine a mobile-vending ordinance passed by City Council. The meeting was held in a small conference room at city hall, and it was intimate and uncomfortable. East Riverside residents argued that the fixed taco stands should not qualify for a "mobile" designation and blamed the taco stand vendors for a host of social ills. "It seems like you want to get rid of taco stands," said Chairman David Sullivan, "and we're not going to do that." The taco stand vendors said they want to find a way to ease the complaints, but at one point, they also got emotional and accused neighbors of "having a problem with Hispanic culture." Sullivan tried to steer the conversation toward concrete proposals that would affect where taco stands can operate, how long they can stay open, and whether they should be required to hire security. He ultimately postponed the discussion until the next meeting, on Aug. 15. M.M.
Kudos to Chron staff writer Jordan Smith, whose October 21, 2005 cover story "Crackpot Crackdown" nabbed first prize in the category of Drugs Reporting in the 2006 AltWeekly Awards contest, which was open to the more than 120 member papers of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies.
City Council's taking the week off, returning to regular session Thursday, Aug. 10, but not before a special-called meeting the day before. Aug. 9 is a "Zoneapalooza," as ex-Chron staffer and Brewster McCracken aide Rachel Proctor May put it, dedicated largely to zoning cases. As if that weren't enough, headlining on stage 2 that day is McCracken's design standards and mixed-use report, an implementation of the design task force's recommendations from last year. The standards are heavy on pedestrian- and mixed-transit-friendly measures like wider sidewalks, placing storefronts and buildings along streets instead of parking, and common open spaces in larger developments as well as encourage solar power and pervious cover, among other things. Wells Dunbar
A new park, boasting the deep shade of 100-foot Cottonwoods, craggy rock outcroppings, and the placid whisper of flowing water, is under construction along the Colorado River, just outside Bastrop. An Austin-based crew from the American YouthWorks Environmental Corps teamed with the Pines and Prairies Land Trust, which serves Bastrop, Lee, Caldwell, and Fayette counties, to create the park. The Colorado River Refuge, as the new park is called, is set to formally open in November and will serve as a wildlife refuge. It will include free daytime hiking access to interpretive trails as well as birding and fishing. Workers are focusing on reversing damage from flooding, four-by-four trucks, ATVs, and dumping, while mitigating future degradation. "Our crews build top-quality trails despite the heat and poison ivy, plus they learn lessons from nature, and they learn teamwork," said YouthWorks coordinator Parc Smith. The Bastrop Co. Water Control and Improvement District No. 2 deeded the land at almost no cost to Pines and Prairies, one of 40 land trusts operating statewide, according to Pines and Prairies Executive Director Tom Dureka. The park is 2 miles outside downtown Bastrop and directly across Highway 71 from the Tahitian Village subdivision. Daniel Mottola
As of Wednesday only four slots remained for a 48-hour course in solar photovoltaic electricity, offered by Austin Community College and the State Energy Conservation Office. The spring installment of the class was so popular that it sold out two weeks ahead of its start date, prompting ACC to open another section. The upcoming course, which will offer students the opportunity to obtain the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners Photovoltaic Entry Level Certificate of Knowledge (designed for those wanting to enter the solar electric energy profession), will run from Sept. 6 to Dec. 13, and is limited to 20 registrants. While the certificate of knowledge by itself will not qualify an individual to install photovoltaic systems, students receiving the entry-level certificate will be eligible to enter the workforce and secure the required two years of on-the-job training to be able to sit for the NABCEP certifying exam for PV installers, said Solar Austin spokeswoman Jane Pulaski. In addition to classroom activities, students participate in hands-on installation and trouble-shooting exercises around town. The class' total cost is $503. For more info, see www3.austincc.edu/schedule/wcell/ceren.htm. D.M.
By now, the news is as old as Grandma herself, but in case you missed last week's flurry of breaking reports, Carole Keeton Strayhorn has dropped her lawsuit to have "Grandma" added to her name on the November ballot. The independent candidate for governor announced her retreat from battle last Thursday, after State District Judge Suzanne Covington ruled her court didn't have jurisdiction to meddle in ballot politics. Strayhorn's attorney, Roy Minton, initially vowed to appeal the ruling, providing an opportunity for Grandma to take the high ground and withdraw the lawsuit because all the fussin' and fightin' over her nickname had become, as she put it, "A distraction from the real issues we all face." In the same breath, though, Strayhorn returned to low ground, blasting the state elections chief for rejecting her request to be identified as "Grandma" on the ballot. "The secretary of state is wrong," she said of Roger Williams, a Rick Perry appointee. "He is doing the political bidding of his boss." Amy Smith
Beyond City Limits
In other gubernatorial race news, the man whose grasp of the Spanish language is limited to two words "adios, mofo" has won the endorsement of a dozen elected officials from the Rio Grande Valley, spoiling predictions that Gov. Rick Perry's caught-on-tape gaffe would cost him the support of Hispanic leaders. Amazingly, Perry's office said the endorsement of 11 mayors and a city commissioner sends a message to valley voters that, regardless of their political party ties, "Texas needs a governor that can put partisanship aside for the good of Texas and will seek common ground whenever possible." ("Whenever possible" being the operative words.) On a more serious note, the Texas chapter of the National Association of Social Workers has endorsed Democrat Chris Bell and chipped in $1,000 toward his campaign. Carol Miller, spokeswoman for the group's political arm, said the state chapter is confident that Bell would "right all the wrongs of the current Texas leadership." A.S.
Also receiving the NASW-Texas endorsement, as well as that of the Austin Police Association, is Austin attorney and candidate for 3rd Court of Appeals Diane Henson. She is bidding to replace retiring Judge Bea Ann Smith in the court's Place 3 seat. Henson ran for the Place 6 seat in 2004, earning 48.4% of the vote and nearly knocking incumbent Judge Bob Pemberton from the bench. The APA represents nearly all APD officers and is one of the largest law enforcement union groups in the court's 24-county jurisdiction. "I am honored to have so much support from public servants who serve at the front lines protecting our families and communities," Henson said in a press release. "Social workers and police officers work in our courts every day and understand that we need lawyers with integrity and qualifications who will bring a balanced and thoughtful approach to the bench." Henson, in a matchup of two Austin lawyers, faces Republican Will Wilson in November. J.S.
Ms. Magazine is collecting signatures from women who've had an abortion as part of its revamped "We Had Abortions" petition campaign, aimed at "saving lives" and sparing "other women the pain of socially imposed guilt," by coming forward, publicly, to acknowledge having had the procedure. The magazine first collected the signatures of 53 prominent women including founder Gloria Steinem and printed the petition in the magazine's 1972 debut issue months before the Supreme Court's landmark Roe v. Wade decision. In the face of new attacks on Roe specifically in South Dakota and in Louisiana, where lawmakers have passed laws to recriminalize the practice in the event that the Supremes ever reverse their stance the magazine has decided to revive the 34-year-old campaign. "It is time to speak out again in even larger numbers and to make politicians face their neighbors, influential movers and shakers, and yes, their family members," reads the Ms. Web site. "We cannot, must not for U.S. women and the women of the world lose the right to safe, legal, and accessible abortion or access to birth control." Ms. will send the petitions to state and federal lawmakers and to the White House. For more info, go to www.msmagazine.com. J.S.
Texas is the nation's top wind power producer, according to the American Wind Energy Association, which reports that Texas' cumulative wind power capacity stands at 2,370 megawatts, enough to power 600,000 average American homes. Texas recently blew past California, America's wind leader for 25 years. Austin-based renewable energy consultant Mike Sloan said the announcement shows that wind power makes business sense, noting that wind represents the No. 1 power-plant investment statewide this year and last. Thanks to a combination of matured technology and fossil-fuel prices that have risen sharply, Sloan says, "Wind is cheaper than oil and gas at today's prices," and he notes that Electric Reliability Council of Texas data shows that more than 50,000 megawatts of undeveloped wind power potential exists just in Texas' 10 best wind power areas. Considering that the state's entire electric usage is 75,000 megawatts, he's optimistic that Texas' wind industry will grow but how quickly depends on whether leaders can "get out in front" of the problematic issue of supplying infrastructure (such as power transmission lines) to the windiest areas so that power can be sent back to big cities. For more info on wind power see www.awea.org. D.M.
Kathie Winckler, commissioner for the Texas Interstate Compact Office, said Friday that she's "working with the governor's office to draft a proposal that would allow Texas to nab out-of-state fugitives without waiting for their home state to issue warrants," reports the San Antonio Express-News. As many as 1,700 Louisiana parolees and probationers fled to Texas after hurricane Katrina, without reporting to authorities in either state, according to the daily, which notes, "Failure to report is a violation of their release conditions, but only Louisiana can authorize their arrest for it." Cheryl Smith
Yet another relative of the fugitive polygamist "prophet" Warren Jeffs head of the Mormon off-shoot sect, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been jailed for contempt of court in connection with the federal grand jury investigation of the FLDS, reports the Salt Lake Tribune. Benjamin Jeffs Nielsen, 25, Jeffs' nephew, was booked into a federal detention center in Arizona last month, the daily reports he joins five others, including Jeffs' older brother Leroy, each of whom have refused to testify as part of the ongoing grand jury probe. Until recently, the Tribune reports, Nielsen was living on FLDS property in Mancos, Colo., serving as "caretaker" for properties that, on paper at least, are owned by David Steed Allred a high-ranking FLDS member also behind the church's purchase of land just outside the West Texas town of Eldorado, where the FLDS has built a vast, gated compound known as the Yearning for Zion ranch. Meanwhile, Warren is still on the loose, dodging state and federal charges related to his arranging marriages between minor girls and older, married men. J.S.