Headlines and Happenings from Austin and Beyond
"She made the state of Texas look like the face of Texas." Former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk, at Monday's memorial service for former Gov. Ann Richards
Quote of the Week
Former Texas Gov. Ann Richards died Wednesday at her home in Austin of esophageal cancer. Richards was 73. See "Point Austin," right, and p.18.
Hurricane ACL Fest blew through town this weekend, blasting Zilker Park, our airport, and hotels with travelers. Lots of coverage in the music section, p.58.
The use of force against blacks by APD increased nearly 7% last year, according to an APD report, even as overall use-of-force numbers declined. See p.23.
More than $527,000 in federal food stamp employment and training funds is available through the end of the month to Hurricane Katrina evacuees through Austin WorkSource, which received the money in August. The Texas Workforce Commission, which oversees Austin WorkSource, has put in a request to get the funds reawarded, said Annete Gula, an Austin Work Source board member and deputy director of programs. If the funds are reawarded, the amount of time they will be available to Katrina evacuees who qualify for food stamps will be extended. Rita evacuees who want a piece of the goods are out of luck, however. As Gula put it, "This little pot of money is for just Katrina." (For more on the forgotten plight of local Rita evacuees, see p.30.) Those interested in the funds should call 454-WORK(9675). Cheryl Smith
In other hurricane-inspired news, mortgage lender Fannie Mae has extended the application deadline for its temporary housing program for Katrina and Rita evacuees beyond the Sept. 15 date. The program allows qualifying evacuees to live in Real Estate Owned properties basically, Fannie Mae-foreclosed properties for up to 18 months for free, with the option of buying once that period is up. The REO program has housed more than 900 evacuee families so far, more than 400 of them in Texas, said Christina McHenry, Fannie Mae's media relations director. Fannie Mae sponsored by the federal government, which it was a part of until 1968 has partnered with various organizations across the country for the REO program. FEMA is Fannie Mae's official REO program partner in Austin. For a list of available local properties, call 977-6514. C.S.
Mayors Will Wynn of Austin and John Cowman of Leander, joined by a variety of local neighborhood and business leaders, kicked off the Alliance for Public Transportation Wednesday morning. While carefully skirting the subject of endorsements like possibly endorsing the upcoming Capital Metro bond issue Wynn says the group's broad purpose is to raise awareness of how public transit can improve the quality of life in the region. For instance, one of the fact statements the group endorses is that it's a "waste of resources not to use existing rail lines along public right-of-way for transit." The group promises a broad education effort. For more info, and to take a survey on transit, go to www.allianceforpublictransportation.org. Kimberly Reeves
In other transportation news, members of the Real Estate Council of Austin packed a ballroom at the Four Seasons last Thursday to hear local officials describe the impact that transit-oriented development zones will have on their industry. Leander Mayor John Cowman, a Capital Metro board member, described a vision of U.S. 183 going through Leander that differs radically from the current high-traffic, high-speed reality. With traffic diverted onto the tolled 183-A, he predicted a much calmer, pedestrian-friendly main street through a town center that will grow up around the stop for MetroRail, the commuter rail line opening in 2008. He was followed by fellow Cap Metro board member Brewster McCracken, who used a PowerPoint display to puncture "Seven Myths About Transit-Oriented Development." One served as McCracken's comic punch line: The claim that "Texans will never ride rail" was accompanied by a circa 1900 cowboy sitting in a primitive automobile; that was followed by the answering statement, "They already are," with a photo from a Chamber of Commerce junket to Seattle showing three gentleman riding a light rail line. When audience members recognized that one of those enjoying the ride was none other than prominent Austin rail critic Jim Skaggs, the room erupted in laughter. The full list of "myths and facts" is available online www.brewstermccracken.org/TOD.html. Lee Nichols
Painted bike lanes on roads help keep both bicyclists and motorists safer and in more central positions in their lanes, according to a new study by the UT Center for Transportation Research that chronicled more than 8,000 passing events. "Without a marked bike lane, there appears to be a lot of uncertainty about how much space each person needs, even when adequate road space is provided," said Randy Machemehl, a transportation engineering professor and director of the CTR. Perhaps most valuable is the study's look at best practices for adding bike lanes to narrower existing roads. Typical four-lane roadways provide 24 feet for traffic moving in one direction. According to the study, lanes could be restriped to provide a 10-foot motorists' lane and a 14-foot outside lane, the outer four feet of which would be clearly marked as a bike lane. In unmarked outside lanes, the study showed motorists swerving drastically farther into other motorist lanes to avoid cyclists. Conducted in Austin, Houston, and San Antonio, the research may be useful as those cities consider how to increase bike lanes as part of meeting federal Clean Air Act requirements. See the study at www.utexas.edu/research/ctr/pdf_reports/0_5157_1.pdf. Daniel Mottola
U.S. Attorney Johnny Sutton announced Sept. 20 that six additional defendants have been indicted on federal charges connected to the East Austin brothel operation that the feds busted up last month. Juan Magdaleno-Gomez, Israel Lozano-Martinez, Jose Cedeno-Zetina, Mohammad Arami, Celia Maria Roberson, and Maria Camacho-Teran were all slapped with charges that include importing illegal aliens for "immoral purpose," coercion and enticement for prostitution, and harboring illegal aliens. Roberson and Arami, along with Juan Balderas-Orosco, have been charged with conspiracy to commit money laundering in connection with their using prostitution-derived proceeds to invest in real estate in order to keep the brothel in business. Sutton's office said the feds will seek to seize $200,000 in cash and the house Arami owns on FM 969 that housed the brothel operation. The feds allege the prostitution ring began in 2002, operating from houses in Dallas, Austin, and Oklahoma City until June 29, when agents, led by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, busted the operation. Jordan Smith
In a surprising turn of events, the Lower Colorado River Authority on Sept. 18 told the Hutto City Council that it recommends locating the new Lower Brushy Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant on Site B, a swath of wooded land that abuts Brushy Creek. The 154-acre tract is owned by LCRA employee Jack Saul, who told the Round Rock Leader he is willing to sell. The tract is located immediately east of Site A the tract that most insiders thought the LCRA would ultimately recommend for the multimillion-dollar plant that will eventually treat 16 million gallons of sewage per day. The news that Site B was the LCRA's choice (with Site A listed as a backup) was a relief to members of the Walther family, the owners of Site D, who have said they would fight any government attempt to seize their land to build the plant. The inclusion of Site D on the LCRA's short list of five potential plant sites touched off a firestorm in the small enclave of Norman's Crossing and other nearby communities within Hutto's extraterritorial jurisdiction. For more on the fight, see "What's Best for Frankie?" Sept. 15. J.S.
Beyond City Limits
The State Board of Education voted Thursday to raise the number of credits needed to graduate high school from 24 to 26. The tougher requirements are part of a new state law that mandates every student graduate with four years of math and science, instead of the three years currently required. AISD administrators, as well as the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, have supported the new plan, saying it will prepare students to fill local high tech jobs. Still, there's some concern that there aren't enough math and science teachers to go around. The rules affect students graduating in 2011, which means schools will need to have extra teachers and classrooms by next year. Michael May
In other state education news, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott ruled Monday that the conservative State Board of Education would only be able to judge textbooks according to whether or not they teach the state curriculum. It sounds like a no-brainer, but State Board of Education member Terri Leo had asked Abbott to overturn a previous opinion by then Attorney General Dan Morales that limited the board's power. Leo is the ultraconservative board member who worked hard, but failed, to include so-called intelligent design in science textbooks, as an "alternative theory" to evolution. (The SBOE did win one small victory; Abbott said the board should be able to review supplemental materials, like teachers guides, as well as textbooks.) Kathy Miller of the Texas Freedom Network applauded the decision. "The legislature and both Democratic and Republican attorneys general have now told the politicians on the State Board that they may not use public school textbooks to promote their own personal and political agendas," she said in a press release. M.M.
Also, according to a study by the Texas Freedom Network, the vast majority of Bible classes taught in Texas public schools are religious in nature. That's in direct violation of U.S. law, which requires that public schools only offer secular examinations of the ancient text. The local nonprofit found 33 Texas school districts (out of more than a thousand) offered an elective Bible course and examined the course materials from 25 of them. It found that not only were the materials biased toward a Christian perspective, but that, in some cases, the classes were actually taught by local clergy. It also found that some classes promoted fundamentalist ideas, such as the Earth is only 6,000 years old and that God designed women to be subservient to men. "Most schools portray their Bible classes as social studies or literature courses," said Mark Chancey, a biblical scholar at SMU and author of the report. "Yet, intentionally or not, most are really courses about the religious beliefs of the teacher or minister leading the class." The report did single out Leander ISD and two others for offering objective, nonsectarian Bible classes. M.M.
In other education-related news, Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, the Louisiana Recovery Authority, the city of New Orleans, and FEMA announced last week that 250 furnished, two-bedroom housing units will be made available to teachers beginning in late November. Educators must qualify for FEMA's Individual Assistance housing program, and have a FEMA registration number, in order to be eligible for the housing. For info, call the Louisiana Department of Education at 800/471-0869. C.S.
In the Trinity River National Wildlife Refuge, northeast of the Houston suburbs where they bulldoze the trees and name subdivisions after them, a very special hickory tree was recently recognized. The Texas Big Tree Registry, part of the Texas Forest Service, certified a pignut hickory located in the refuge as a Champion Tree, or the largest known tree of its kind in the state of Texas. The hickory's trunk has a circumference of 126 inches, it's 97 feet tall, and its crown spans 57 feet. In 2004 a 49-foot-tall ironwood tree with a circumference of 53 inches was also certified as a champion in the refuge. But things aren't always bigger in Texas. According to the National Register of Big Trees, the largest known pignut hickory is 209 inches wide and 90 feet tall, while the largest known ironwood is 74 feet tall, with a circumference of 115 inches. The Trinity River NWR is a 21,000-acre preserve in Liberty, Texas. Its Web site is www.fws.gov/southwest/refuges/texas/trinityriver. To find out more about the Texas Forest Service and the Big Tree Registry, go to texasforestservice.tamu.edu. D.M.
The Latino arts community will be ready when the Mexican-American Cultural Center opens next June, Chair Donato Rodriguez pledges. While the community has been a bit fractured especially over programming the long-delayed MACC various art groups are beginning to coalesce in the community. This Friday, the MACC and Texas Folklife will present Tardeada con Santiago, a free concert with two-time Grammy nominee Santiago Jiménez Jr., at 5pm Friday at Fiesta Gardens. Construction on the majority of the first phase of the MACC classrooms, parking, and gallery space will be completed by next June. Additional classroom space, including a dance studio, will be on the city's November ballot. K.R.
This Saturday, a group of Austin's African-American leaders will hold the fourth monthly "Men and Boys Conference." The events connect local African-American youths with mentoring, employment, substance-abuse treatment, and other resources. LBJ High School principal Patrick Patterson facilitates this month's conference, which will also feature remarks by state Rep. Dawnna Dukes, AISD Superintendent Pat Forgione, UT Provost Dr. Gregory Vincent, and others. The conference is at LBJ High from 10am to 2pm Saturday, Sept. 23. For more info, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 585-6696. M.M.
A public hearing on the proposed new Travis County Conservation Development Ordinance will be held at 9am Tuesday, Sept. 26, at the Travis Co. Commissioners Court. Conservation developments residential subdivisions in which the housing and infrastructure is clustered, allowing at least 50% of the land to be preserved in perpetuity as open space offer one solution to protecting ecosystems in outer Travis County, as well as rural character and heritage. Public input will help to define whether the ordinance as written provides sufficient or too much environmental protection. The draft ordinance (available at www.co.travis.tx.us/tnr) proposes incentives for developers the intent is to encourage them to voluntarily follow conservation development principles in order to preserve open space and environmental sustainability. The "green" ordinance defines key minimum standards for not only open space and subdivision design, but also for energy, water, and materials conservation. It also applies to commercial development. The decision to pursue the ordinance grew out of the Southwest Travis Co. Growth Dialog in 2004-2006, in response to concerns that fast-paced development was rapidly changing the area. About 1,800 parcels (those greater than 4 acres, with an agricultural exemption) primarily in far northeastern and western Travis County would qualify to participate in the ordinance, if it passes. Key stakeholders include landowners and residents in all unincorporated areas of the county, environmental activists, home builders, and developers. A strong turnout at the hearing will demonstrate interest in the ordinance and in Travis County's sustained attention to more eco-friendly development alternatives. (For the agenda, visit www.co.travis.tx.us/commissioners_court after Sept. 22.) Katherine Gregor
Among other county happenings, the Hill Country Alliance, a coalition of western Travis Co. neighborhoods and outlying communities, will host a public input meeting on CAMPO's long-range transportation plans at 6:30pm Thursday, Sept. 21, at Bee Cave Elementary School, 14300 Hamilton Pool Rd. For more info, go to www.hillcountryalliance.org. Amy Smith
Also Thursday night, TxDOT hosts the second of two town hall meetings about MoPac expansion. Current talk is an additional managed lane on each side, while still squeezing in enough space to maintain the right of way for the eventual Austin-San Antonio commuter rail line down the middle. The open house will be at O. Henry Middle School, 2610 W. 10th, at 5pm. K.R.