Headlines and happenings from Austin and beyond
Quote of the Week"I am proud of the things I saw happen through this incident. I saw a city come together and celebrate individuality, diversity, and love." Former Austin High art teacher Tamara Hoover, on her flap with AISD over nude photos of her published on the Internet. See p.25.
Headlines Plans to locate the new Water Treatment Plant 4 in the endangered-species habitat of the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve continued apace, over the objections of environmentalists. See Naked City, below.
Naked City The debate over former Mayor Bruce Todd's proposed bicycle helmet law pedals into City Hall tonight for what's expected to be an extreme public hearing. Todd admonished the opposing League of Bicycling Voters in a TV news interview for a helmet fashion show and rally they held Sunday evening. Attendees included a who's who of cycling advocates and local cycling organizations (none of whom support the law). Their message, proudly displayed on yellow T-shirts, was "helmets good, law bad." Certified cycling instructor Mike Librik, a helmet user, said that if the city is interested in improving safety, council should consult the cycling community, not consider draconian laws. Helmets forced on people are often maladjusted and ineffective, he said, favoring instead voluntary helmets and better infrastructure and roadway training for bikers. Many cyclists applauded an Urban Transportation Commission resolution passed last week calling for council to table the law, pending an 18-month cycling safety study, though most still want the measure vanquished. As of press time, Todd still hadn't come up with a solid figure to back up his argument that unhelmeted bicycle head injuries were burdening public funds. For more info, see www.bikesafeaustin.org and www.nohelmetlaw.org. Daniel Mottola
The smoking ban was back in court last week. Attorney Marc Levin, representing original anti-ban organization Keep Austin Free as well as two violation-laden pool halls, said his ultimate intent was to see the ban overturned. His arguments centered on the vagueness of the "necessary steps" the ordinance says bar owners must take to keep patrons from smoking. He claims the ordinance places undue burden on a bar owner to deal with a hypothetical patron who lights up, is told to stop, refuses, is told to leave, and still refuses. "I don't think it's reasonable for bar owners to turn customers into police," Levin said. Asked whether this scenario has ever actually led to a citation, Robert Wright, environmental health supervisor for the Austin/Travis County Health and Human Services Department, said he hadn't heard of any. "Most establishments have not experienced confusion enforcing the ordinance," he said, and citations have been issued to less than 1% of the businesses affected by the ban. According to health department data, the bars with the most complaints Canary Roost, Canary Hut, Warehouse Saloon, Click's Billiards, Elysium, Horseshoe Lounge, and Rack Daddy's are plaintiffs in the suit and the most vocal opponents of the ban. D.M.
Though it's been 11 months since Austin's only ladies club, La Bare, began its liquor-permit process with the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, the club is still stagnating in BYOB purgatory. Initially, the holdup was a city protest that the club, though zoned as a bar, is actually an adult-oriented business. (If so, its Riverside location just under 1,000 feet from a park and school violates zoning.) Eager to prove its innocence and with no TABC hearing in sight, La Bare filed an injunction against the city in June, hoping to force a resolution. The city, meanwhile, filed misdemeanor charges against the club for the zoning offenses, but when personal emergencies on both sides of both cases kept them off the docket, it turned out to be a long, hot, dry summer for La Bare. September, however, brings hope. The permit application arrived in TABC's legal department Tuesday, and a Sept. 18 hearing date was set Wednesday. The misdemeanor hearing has been set for Sept. 6. La Bare wanted its day in court; now it has two. Nora Ankrum
This weekend's Texas Benefits Fair at the Austin Convention Center is aimed at putting Central Texas families back on the rolls of state benefit programs. At a press conference earlier this week, Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos tried to sidestep some of the controversy around the state's transition to call centers for enrollment and focused instead on the need to serve families who failed to properly re-enroll in state programs, due to either software glitches or frustration with the new call-center process. "To the people who need the services, these glitches are measured in pain and illnesses untreated by a doctor," said Barrientos. While the Health and Human Services Commission says renewal rates have rebounded, CHIP enrollment numbers provided by Insure-a-Kid show that there's still a 3,000-kid gap between how many were enrolled in January and July. Either the state has an unusually high number of families doing significantly better financially or, more likely, families got frustrated with new procedures and policies and gave up. The fair is Saturday at the Convention Center, 10am-4pm. Those who've been rejected for benefits, in particular, are encouraged to attend. For more info, call Insure-a-Kid at 324-2447. Kimberly Reeves
Travis Co. officials were still undecided about supporting the Cortaña site as the new location for a city water-treatment plant after a lengthy executive session on Tuesday. That might throw a wrench in City Council plans to take a final vote on the issue on Thursday. County Judge Sam Biscoe said the county still had a handful of legal issues it needed to discuss with the city. Local environmentalists who addressed the court urged county commissioners not to consider the site for Water Treatment Plant 4 an "either-or" choice between two environmentally sensitive tracts of land. They urged the county to push the Lucas or Ribelin tracts as possible alternatives. The county is the city's partner in the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve and has an equal say in whether the city can amend it to put in the plant. K.R.
AISD is looking for a few good men and women. The district will carry on the annual tradition of awarding diplomas to veterans who left high school to fight in World War II. (The Lege also recently extended the program to veterans of the Korean and Vietnam wars.) The ceremony will take place in November, as part of a Veteran's Day celebration. Veterans can get diploma applications by calling 414-0112; the district must receive the completed application, and a copy of the veteran's discharge notification, by Sept. 29. Michael May
Beyond City Limits If Kinky Friedman were governor, Willie Nelson would be his go-to man on renewable energy, and Texas would be shooting for a goal of generating 20% of its electricity from renewable sources by the year 2020. "Texas was once the world's leading energy producer," the candidate said last week in announcing his energy platform. "But today, we're paying for it. We have the resources to be self-sufficient. We have enormous solar, wind, and biofuel capabilities. What we lack is leadership." Friedman said he would create a new agency, the Texas Department of Energy, which Nelson would oversee. Friedman's 20% plan is far more ambitious than what other candidates have proposed. Democrat Chris Bell, for example, would shoot for 10% by 2015. Lawmakers last year passed a bill that aims for a mere 8% by 2025. Friedman touted his plan as an economic booster for the state, creating 40,000 new jobs that would fetch Texas families about $900 million in new income. Funding would be a snap. Friedman would use existing funds from Gov. Rick Perry's pet projects the Texas Enterprise Fund and the Emerging Technology Fund to jump-start the program and offer economic incentives to help Texas corner the market on what could become one of the state's hottest industries. Amy Smith
Gubernatorial candidate Carole Keeton Strayhorn on Monday provided state transportation officials with a snapshot of her vision for Texas roads. As one might expect, her first priority would be to kill Gov. Perry's toll road plan. Strayhorn has made her opposition to toll roads a hallmark of her campaign, linking arms with toll road foes in cities across Texas and testifying against the plan at more than a dozen public hearings. Her transportation proposal calls for, among other things, increasing I-35 capacity using existing rights-of-way (a plan already on state books), appointing an independent inspector general and an ombudsman at TxDOT, and encouraging employers to tap into the beauty of telecommuting and to stagger employee work schedules to ease traffic congestion. Perry campaign spokesman Robert Black mocked Strayhorn's proposal, saying it reads "like the script of a bad science-fiction movie" and lacks an explanation for financing. A.S.
Add another proposal to Rick Perry's long list of things he wants to reform. (No, it has nothing to do with that revolving door at his office.) The governor on Monday introduced the Texas Task Force on Appraisal Reform, a new committee he pulled together to study and make recommendations on how to rein in rising property appraisals, which means we can expect another attempt to pass an appraisal-cap bill next year. Perry appointed former GOP Chair Tom Pauken to chair the advisory group. Pauken hates taxes but supported Perry on the tax-swap bill that legislators passed this summer. He's no John Sharp the Democrat who chaired Perry's tax-swap committee but he's a wee bit of a maverick on some levels. The committee also includes Brazos Co. tax assessor/collector Gerald "Buddy" Winn, Harris Co. Judge Robert Eckels, Georgetown real estate agent Avis Wukasch, Houston developer Michael Stevens, Garland ISD Superintendent L. Curtis Culwell, Hidalgo Mayor John David Franz, UT-El Paso Economics Chair Timothy Roth, and seven others. A.S.
For those fed up with the prospect of utility industry big boys further fouling Texas air with 17 planned new coal-burning power plants, a protest will be held in front of the state Capitol this Friday, Aug. 25, at noon. Recently, the mayors of Houston and Dallas, both struggling to sweeten their cities' sour air, have publicly opposed the plants. Utility giant TXU, proposing 11 of the plants, has consistently rejected calls to use coal gasification technology (also known as clean coal), capable of nearly eliminating mercury pollution while capturing global-warming-causing carbon-dioxide emissions expected to double in Texas with the proposed plants. For more, see www.stopthecoalplant.org. D.M.
Just when you think everyone agrees that the state should do a better job of funding its park system, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, under orders from the governor, cut $14.2 million and 117 full-time positions from its proposed budget. With that, the Democratic candidate for governor, Chris Bell, this week called for a moratorium on the time-honored practice of raiding TPWD-dedicated revenue sources, such as the sporting-goods tax and park-improvement bonds, to pay for other stuff. Also, Bell wants to derail the move toward selling off state parks to people with money to burn. A state parks advisory committee is expected to release its recommendations on parks funding today (Thursday), which could include privatizing public lands. A.S.
Naked City reported last week that Democrat Barbara Ann Radnofsky's hope of unseating U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison "looks bleak" according to a couple of recent polls showing the incumbent with more than 60% support among Texans. Radnofsky quickly e-mailed us to point out a Wall Street Journal/Zogby poll that, while not quite contradicting the other polls, makes Mount Hutchison appear at least a little less intimidating at only 52% to Radnofsky's 37%. Radnofsky also pointed out that she now leads among self-described moderates and has gained in other categories. While we question the power of the "moderate" vote in this very red state, the dip in Hutchison's Zogby numbers, if accurate, could indeed signal a shift in momentum as campaigning becomes more intense in the home stretch. Keep in mind that John Zogby is the same pollster who back in April found that 65% of Texans had a positive image of Hutchison, and wrote that her "re-election bid is a smooth ride on a wide road. A third term for her appears likely." Zogby conducted another poll on the race last week; the results are yet to be announced. Lee Nichols
Sugar Land Mayor David Wallace, one of the earliest candidates to emerge in the Republican race to replace Tom DeLay, withdrew this week, citing the Republicans' choice to back Shelley Sekula-Gibbs, both symbolically and financially. Wallace told local media that the Texas GOP had pledged $3 million to Sekula-Gibbs' campaign against Democrat Nick Lampson, and in the interest of unity, he will step aside. Sekula-Gibbs, the first physician ever elected to Houston City Council in 2001, might have a bit of a name ID problem among voters on a write-in ballot, though. She was originally elected as the widow of beloved KHOU newscaster Sylvan Rodriguez as Shelley Sekula-Rodriguez but remarried after his death and is now Shelley Sekula-Gibbs. That's not to be confused with teacher activist Sherrie Matula, a Democrat running for a House seat in the Clear Lake area. K.R.
The Texas Health and Human Services Commission recently released a statewide assessment of Hurricane Katrina evacuees' situations in urban areas of the state. "Hurricane Katrina Evacuees in Texas," dated Aug. 17, looks at demographics, housing, employment, social services and education, physical and mental health, as well as health insurance, Medicaid, and CHIP. HHSC contracted with Gallup in March to survey evacuees, interviewing about 6,400 households. The report estimates that as of June, 251,000 Katrina evacuees remained in Texas. Some key findings: Most families "do not have firm plans to leave the state"; evacuees "have made limited progress in their recovery from the storm"; and, "More than half of the evacuees remain dependent on housing subsidies." See the report at www.hhsc.state.tx.us/survey/
KATRINA_0806_FinalReport.pdf; for more on the current situation of some local evacuees on Katrina's anniversary, see "After the Storm," p.30. Cheryl Smith
More than 100 protestors many from mother-turned-protester Cindy Sheehan's Camp Casey up in Crawford were on hand to call for the head of presidential adviser Karl Rove at a campaign fundraising dinner Saturday night. Chanting "Try Rove for treason," the group hung a banner calling on the president to "Pink Slip Rove." A number attempted a symbolic "citizens' arrest" of Rove. The real arrest, however, came with the protesters. Tiffany Burns of CodePink-Los Angeles, who was acting as Sheehan's press spokeswoman, was arrested and held overnight in the downtown jail, where protestors continued to rally. Rove, on the other hand, emerged unaccosted from the dinner and raised about $250,000 for the Associated Republicans of Texas. K.R.
U.S. Attorney Johnny Sutton announced on Aug. 16 that a federal grand jury indicted seven people on charges connected to operating a brothel in far East Austin. The indictments charge seven individuals (Juan Balderas-Orosco, Bertha Jiminez, Francisco Castillo-Celaya, David Mendoza-Magana, Emilio Castillo-Celaya, Rafael Torres-Melchor, and Miguel Gomez) with coercion, enticement, and transportation of women for prostitution, transporting and harboring illegal aliens, and importing illegals for "immoral purpose." Reportedly, the men used women from South and Central America and Mexico in brothels catering primarily to undocumented workers. The indictments allege that the prostitution ring began in late 2002, operating from houses in Dallas, Austin, and Oklahoma City until June 29, when three of the seven were busted by the feds. The remaining four remain at large. Jordan Smith
Smaller cities along State Highway 130 Pflugerville, Round Rock, and Georgetown are using annexation as the best way to deal with impending development, according to recent presentations at the regional leaders group on SH 130, being led by former mayor-turned-senatorial candidate Kirk Watson. For many towns even Austin annexation is the only control they have over development, but it's not easy. At this week's meeting, Pflugerville leaders said they were moving forward with annexation but admitted they were uncertain how they could afford to provide the full range of city services once development began. Tom Word, public works director in Round Rock, said the city is faced with all sorts of new development, both related to SH 130 and not compounded by the fact that the high-growth area is served by a local water utility that's ill-equipped to handle growth. "It's a problem," Word said. K.R.