Headlines and Happenings from Austin and Beyond
"Texans expect relatively little from state government, and [Gov. Rick] Perry delivers precisely that very little." SMU political science professor Cal Jillson
Quote of the Week
The fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon was memorialized countrywide Monday, in ceremonies ranging from the simple and eloquent (Austin firefighters) to the grandiloquent and lugubrious (D.C.). President Bush persisted in his PR campaign to defend the U.S. invasion of Iraq as a front in the "war on terrorism," despite the release of a report last week from a Republican-chaired Senate intelligence committee that concludes not only did Saddam Hussein not have any ties with al Qaeda, he considered the group a threat to his government and even tried to capture one of its leaders.
After weeks of hearings and discussions, City Council adopted the 2006-07 city budget Monday, taking advantage of rising property values to add some services without too big a hit to our pocketbooks. See "City Budget."
The Texas affiliates of the Industrial Areas Foundation held a conference at the Airport Hilton last weekend, hosting gubernatorial candidates Carole Keeton Strayhorn and Chris Bell and holding workshops on perennial IAF issues like education, immigration, health care, and jobs. The local affiliate is Austin Interfaith, which in recent months has been particularly focused on immigration-related challenges. See "IAF: The Promised Land Visits the Hilton."
County commissioners passed the Travis County Health Care District's budget on Tuesday, setting a tax rate of 7.34 cents per hundred-dollar valuation. That will mean a slight bump for taxpayers, but it's less than the hospital district wanted. When faced with the tax rate just short of a required rollback vote, county commissioners sent the health care district's board of managers back to scrub its budget. The managers cut $1 million and curtailed the expansion of some health care programs. One indirect service item still in the budget is $80,000 for a lobbyist next session. The district wants to head off a $4 million hit from the state due to federal formula changes. Kimberly Reeves
Ousted Austin Clean Water Program director Bill Moriarty has dropped his lawsuit against the city as a letter appears exonerating him of wrongdoing. Moriarty led ACWP as an employee of contractor Earth Tech; responsible for bringing the city's sewer system up to EPA standards, he oversaw $200 million worth of work and contracts. It was the contracting process that cost Moriarty his job, he claims: His efficiency upset entrenched contractors, who were milking the city for longer than need be on design and construction costs, and he fell prey to an orchestrated campaign against him. Moriarty was investigated three times after he was accused of demanding bribes for contracts; each concluded the claims were unfounded, but Moriarty was dismissed by City Manager Toby Futrell after it came to light that his live-in girlfriend Diane Hyatt was performing a Web design project for the ACWP, creating the appearance of impropriety. Still, the city has changed its mind. (Engineer Aaron Googins was exonerated earlier this year after City Attorney David Smith ominously included him in his summary of the investigation ousting Moriarty.) In the letter, Austin Water Utility director Chris Lippe writes, "When Mr. Moriarty was the Program Manager the ACWP was a well run, efficient, and a successful Public Works program." Wells Dunbar
In other municipal news, following a study by the city of Austin and the U.S. Geological Survey, Austin became the first city in the country to ban coal-tar sealants, commonly used to protect asphalt surfaces, in November 2005. The decision was based on the study's findings that the popular sealants contained toxic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, the presence of which has long been increasing in U.S. waterways. Last week, two U.S. senators Jim Jeffords, Ind.-Vt., and John Warner, R-Va. called on the EPA to perform a nationwide study of coal-tar sealants and increasing PAHs in the water and their effects on human health and the environment. The Austin study showed that PAH levels in runoff were 65% higher from sealed parking lots than from unsealed ones, that PAHs are toxic to aquatic life, and that they're degrading the health of Austin's creeks. Tom Ennis, who manages the city's Watershed Protection and Development Review Department, says coal-tar sealants pollute runoff for virtually the entire 10 years it takes them to completely wash off pavement. But, he said, one sealant manufacturer has approached the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality trying to overturn Austin's ban, and similar industry efforts could threaten efforts elsewhere. Find out more at www.ci.austin.tx.us/watershed/coaltar_main.htm. Daniel Mottola
Also concerning the city, Will Wynn has finished filling out his mayoral cabinet replacing the departed Matt Curtis and Richard Arellano, his former executive assistant and chief of staff, respectively. Rich Bailey left Brewster McCracken's office a month ago to head Wynn's team, and this week, Matt Watson became the mayor's new executive assistant, leaving his planning position at the Austin Water Utility. W.D.
Officials announced Sept. 8 that Georgia-based Slavin Management Consultants has been chosen to head up the nationwide search for a new APD chief. Former Chief Stan Knee resigned his position in June to take on a private contracting job in Afghanistan (yes it still sounds odd Afghanistan), and the city has tapped Assistant Chief Cathy Ellison to serve as interim administrator while the city searches for a permanent replacement. SMC has "broad experience" in recruiting police administrators they've lent recruiting efforts to the hiring of top cops in Dallas and Denton, among other cities and will be tasked with producing an "ideal candidate" profile, identifying qualified applicants, evaluating candidates and assisting with interviews, and conducting community forums with job candidates, according to a city press release. The search is expected to extend "well into 2007," reports the city, which will pay SMC approximately $18,500 for its services. Jordan Smith
In other APD news, the number of internally generated complaints about department officers that is, the number of officers complaining about the conduct of other officers increased in 2005 to a total of 187 internally initiated complaints, nine more than in 2004. The number of internal complaints also topped the number filed by Austin residents, who filed 127 complaints, six more than were filed in 2004. Internal complaints were also more likely to be sustained than were complaints filed by citizens, reports the APD's Internal Affairs Division, in a report presented to mayor and council late last month. Just 22 of the externally filed complaints resulted in some form of discipline, while 146 complaints made by an officer about another officer were sustained by IAD investigators. J.S.
Also, APD Cmdr. James O'Leary was handed a 60-day suspension in connection with a May car accident near Bergstrom Airport that resulted in his arrest on drunken-driving charges. Reportedly, O'Leary had a blood-alcohol level of .21%, almost three times the legal limit of .08%. J.S.
Funding the proposed second phase of the Central Texas toll road system segments of U.S. 290, TX 71, and U.S. 183 is roughly equivalent to a 17-cent gas tax, according to estimates from TxDOT and the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority. That figure, which would cover $4.4 billion in lost bond revenue, toll funding, and state support, was presented to Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization's Transportation Policy Board on Monday night. The "gas tax" question and whether a gas tax was a viable alternative to tolling has been a lingering question with CAMPO members. The next question, in all likelihood, will be whether some version of "tolling lite" such as managed lanes would be a possible option for some projects in the current toll road proposal. K.R.
AISD forced a language-arts teacher on Sept. 7 to move from his post at Bailey Middle School to a position in another school, a move the teacher characterizes as "punishment" for raising concerns about the Bailey principal. The teacher, Michael Poliakoff, had been at Bailey for 12 years; he is also active in Education Austin, the teacher's union, which has filed a grievance against AISD on Poliakoff's behalf. According to a union statement, Poliakoff was one of 49 teachers who sounded the alarm three years ago when Bailey principal Julia Fletcher changed student grades without informing either parents or the teachers who assigned the original grades. Last spring, Poliakoff also filed a grievance against Fletcher for interfering with Poliakoff's desire to pursue National Board certification, a professional development program that AISD encourages veteran teachers to undertake. According to a union statement, that grievance was resolved in Poliakoff's favor. Now, the union is calling for Poliakoff's reinstatement in his Bailey classroom. Michael May
In other education news: Got an opinion about AISD? District leaders want to know how well they're moving toward goals they set last year in the 2005-2010 Strategic Plan and are thus taking the obvious step of, well, asking people. The online Strategic Plan Year-One Progress Review is your chance to evaluate the district on such big-picture concerns as teacher compensation, student safety, high-stakes testing, college readiness, and the other sorts of challenges facing the fast-growing district of 80,000 students. Once compiled, the results will be analyzed by those lucky dogs on the Superintendent's Task Force on Strategic Plan Review, who will then recommend ways to address areas of weakness. Unfortunately, this is not really the proper venue for those small-but-burning issues you really want to talk about, such as cafeteria food and the nude art teacher. But go to www.austinisd.org to participate. M.M.
Tired of having to make a Frogger-style mad dash to cross the intersection of Rosewood Avenue and Angelina Street on foot, local residents along with the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now held a rally last Friday at the crossroads in question, near the George Washington Carver Library. The group urged the city to add a set of stop signs on Rosewood to the existing two on Angelina, which would halt east-west traffic at the intersection. "It's especially bad when walking our children to and from school," said Esther Crawford, chair of the East Austin ACORN chapter. Beverly Robbins, Council Member Sheryl Cole's executive assistant, was on hand for the rally and reported seeing kids having to race across the street. She said Tuesday that the city has taken action to make the signs happen, but must follow state law by performing a study and an engineering investigation D.M.
Funeral services were held Monday for Robert T. Chapa Sr., a beloved public-service volunteer who dedicated his life to people in need. Chapa died Sept. 7 at 83, two years after retiring as chairman of the Austin Travis County Mental Health Mental Retardation Center, a position he held for about 10 years. As he was a well-known figure and frequent visitor at City Hall, city officials delayed the start of a scheduled budget hearing Monday to attend services at San Jose Catholic Church. The World War II veteran is survived by his wife, Estela; sons, Robert and Ricardo Chapa; brother Ruben Chapa; sister Ella Soza; seven grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. A.S.
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott told reporters this week that his office's Fugitive and Cyber Crimes Unit arrested its 500th "predator" on Aug. 31 when officers apprehended Timothy Sankey, who allegedly engaged in sexual activity with a minor in a dressing room of a Kohl's store in New Braunfels. During a press conference, Abbott said that since the fugitive unit's formation in 2003, investigators have made a total of 412 arrests in 57 Texas counties, 17 other states, and in Mexico; since 2003, Cyber Crimes investigators have nabbed 88 men in 22 counties whom they caught trying to arrange "sexual meetings" with people they thought were juveniles but were, in fact, AG gumshoes. J.S.
Beyond City Limits
On Thursday, Sept. 7, parties involved in a lawsuit filed on behalf of migrant laborers who went to the Gulf Coast to work post-Hurricane Katrina announced a settlement. Disaster recovery company Belfor USA Group, the defendant in the federal suit brought by the Southern Poverty Law Center, "has agreed to pay more than $200,000 in overtime to workers hired by its subcontractors," The New York Times reports. Lawyers representing the 175 workers included in the suit said the laborers put in "as many as 80 hours a week on the cleanup of Tulane University and other projects," according to the Times. Belfor also agreed to monitor its subcontractors more closely, as well as to set up a toll-free number for workers to call if they feel they have been mistreated. Cheryl Smith
In other hurricane-inspired news, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is predicting a 75% chance of an "above-normal" Atlantic hurricane season this year "a seasonal total of 12-15 named storms, with 7-9 becoming hurricanes, and 3-4 becoming major hurricanes," according to NOAA's Web site, www.cpc.ncep.noaa.gov/products/outlooks/hurricane.shtml. Three of these predicted storms Alberto, Beryl, and Chris have already unfolded, but with more to come, it's worth noting that the American Red Cross has launched a Disaster Victim Safe and Well Registry. If you or someone you know gets lost or ends up fleeing to some designated, or undesignated, place, you can let people know where you are, as well as search for other people, by using the online registry assuming you have Internet access, of course. Searches can be done by name and phone number or by name and address. To check out the registry, see disastersafe.redcross.org. C.S.
Although last week's announcement that Chevron has found significant oil and gas deposits deep beneath the Gulf of Mexico made front-page news here in Austin and nationwide with reports ballyhooing that the discovery could boost U.S. reserves by up to 50% oil industry insiders and investment bankers are urging gasoline addicts to hold their Hemis. TheOilDrum.com and EnergyBulletin.net report that Chevron's oil well, known as Jack No. 2, is located under more than a mile of water and 4 more miles beneath the ocean floor, making it extraordinarily difficult, risky, and expensive to get the oil all the way to soccer-moms' SUVs in suburbia. Production won't fully begin until 2013, and experts believe Jack's new oil might not offset expected declines at existing fields in the meantime. Enviros believe the revved-up announcement is all too timely since the U.S. Senate is close to a vote on lifting the 25-year prohibition on off-shore oil drilling in coastal areas a move the House has already approved and made even more suspicious since Jack has been drilled and undergoing testing since 2004. D.M.