Headlines and happenings from Austin and beyond
"As we start down the stretch, Bell is picking up on the outside, Perry is still at 35 percent after a year, Strayhorn is fading and Kinky stopped to poop on the track." from syndicated columnist Molly Ivins' Oct. 3 column endorsement of Democrat Chris Bell in the fast-approaching race for governor
Quote of the Week
At press time, federal Judge Sam Sparks declared that the term "necessary steps" in Austin's anti-smoking ordinance is unconstitutionally vague. He enjoined the city from holding businesses liable for failure to take "necessary steps" other than posting "no smoking" signs and removing ashtrays and other smoking accessories and from suspending city permits or licenses and imposing fines related to that portion of the ordinance. All other portions of the law, Sparks ruled, still stand.
NEWS UPDATE [posted Oct. 5, 2006]
Judge Sparks Limits City Smoking Enforcement
On Wednesday, Oct. 4, U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks declared part of the city of Austin’s smoking ordinance “unconstitutionally vague.” Sparks ruled that requiring bar or club owners to take “necessary steps” to stop customers from smoking is too vague, and that all the city can require under the current ordinance is the posting of No Smoking signs and the removal of ashtrays, as explicitly required in the ordinance. That means the city cannot continue to enforce the ordinance by suspending club licenses or issuing fines against owners; henceforth any enforcement would have to be taken directly against smokers.
The judge’s order was the result of a lawsuit brought against the city by several local club owners and clubs, including the Warehouse Saloon and Billiards, Elysium, Lovejoy’s, Ego’s, and others. City attorneys said they have not yet decided whether to appeal the decision, and that in the meantime the ordinance will be enforced in keeping with the judge’s order.
For the complete judgment, download the PDF here
This is your last warning: If you haven't already registered to vote in the Nov. 7 general election, you need to do so by next Tuesday, Oct. 10. You can do it at the Travis Co. Web site (www.traviscountytax.org/goVoters.do), or pick up forms at post offices, libraries, and other locations around town.
Austin political columnist Molly Ivins endorsed Democrat Chris Bell for governor this week, despite having provided opponent Kinky Friedman with one of his slogans: "How hard could it be?" Saying that has turned out to be "a little harder than Kinky is willing to make an effort to go," Ivins said. She called Bell "intelligent, knowledgeable, and funny," concluding, "All we have to do to win this is get Democrats to vote. Let's make it a vote for Annie [Richards]."
This Friday night at 7pm, KVUE-TV (owned by Belo Corp.) will have exclusive Austin rights to the only gubernatorial debate because, well, Belo says so. For those of you not en route to Dallas for the Texas-OU game or already oiled in anticipation get your glimpse of four of the five candidates. The fifth, Libertarian James Werner, announced that he is suing the Belo boys for excluding him, to the tune of $4.6 million.
Capital Metro announced last week that it will no longer offer free rides on Ozone Action Days. Spokesman Adam Shaivitz said Cap Metro's board felt the average ozone-day ridership increases of 3-10% weren't enough to justify the roughly $10,000 in fares it sacrificed each free day. Instead, Shaivitz said, the board wants to focus funds on things like buying new hybrid buses (a third was just acquired), fueling buses with cleaner ultra-low-sulfur diesel, and car and van pools. Ozone Action Days are declared on hot, sunny, still days when conditions are most favorable for the accumulation of unhealthy levels of ground-level ozone, according to the Texas Department of Transportation, which says exposure to this bad ozone, created largely by motor-vehicle exhaust, can result in asthma and respiratory infections and can adversely impact plant life, reduce crop yields, and kill trees. Environment Texas advocate Luke Metzger, an ozone-day rider, said the decision is disappointing, especially given Austin's marginal air-quality situation. It's unclear how Cap Metro collected its ozone-day-ridership-increase figures, but at the low end of the company's estimates, 3% of its 130,000 daily one-way trips is 3,900 people who may have chosen the bus over driving. Daniel Mottola
Speaking of getting around town, Austin CarShare, a nonprofit that allows members, who pay a monthly fee, to reserve Toyota Tacoma pickups or Scion xA cars for short periods of time, is the first version of the increasingly popular concept to appear in Texas. Last Thursday, car sharing got a vote of confidence from City Council, which passed a resolution, sponsored by Sheryl Cole and Lee Leffingwell, establishing four permanent parking spots around the city for CarShare vehicles and exempting them from city parking-meter fees throughout the city. "Austin CarShare applauds the forward thinking of the Austin City Council and commitment to build this program into a real transportation solution for residents in Austin's urban core. We see the parking problem at the University of Texas and the number of cars that sit in downtown parking garages for eight hours a day and believe that Austin CarShare could reduce the number of cars on our roads," says a CarShare press release. "It is important that the City of Austin encourages programs that lower emissions for cleaner air, reduces the number of cars on our streets, and gives citizens transportation options as gas prices fluctuate wildly." More at www.austincarshare.org. D.M.
In other local transportation-related news, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission issued a decision late last month that could affect business at StarTran, the contractor overseeing all of Capital Metro's day-to-day operations. StarTran came into being at Cap Metro's request because state law prohibits federally funded agencies from bargaining with unions, while federal law preserved the then formed union Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1091 and its seat at the table. The decision stemmed from StarTran's insistence that it's a political subdivision of the state of Texas and not an employer; the contractor claimed so when it couldn't produce records requested by OSHA on a site inspection, as political subdivisions are exempt. While acknowledging that Cap Metro appoints all its members, the commission found StarTran to be autonomous in its oversight of its employees. "StarTran is simply not free to shed its private cloak and don the mantle of a political subdivision whenever convenience dictates," reads the decision. Wells Dunbar
Council members Lee Leffingwell, Mike Martinez, and Brewster McCracken took a public stand asserting the value of Las Manitas Avenue Cafe, Escuelita del Alma, and Tesoros Trading Co. to the city and the 200 block of Congress Avenue in a Sept. 28 letter to J. Willard Marriott Jr., chairman and CEO of Marriott International the hotel chain whose current development plans would displace Las Manitas and friends. To read the letter, go to austinchronicle.com/gyrobase/Issue/story?oid=oid%3A406617. Katherine Gregor
Superintendent Pat Forgione has announced a plan to turn the Liberal Arts and Science Academy at LBJ High School into a separate school. The magnet will remain at LBJ High but will now have a separate budget, principal, and state identification number. Forgione said the distinction will allow the district to redesign LBJ High by instituting the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation program "First Things First" but it will also mean that LBJ High students can no longer take magnet classes. The magnet was originally placed in the Eastside school to increase diversity and to allow neighborhood kids a chance to take more challenging classes. In reality, the LBJ students rarely took LASA classes, and the proposed changes mean those original goals are being officially abandoned. The current magnet director, Gregory Foley, also stepped aside this week. Rene Sánchez, currently LASA's assistant director, will take over as interim director. Michael May
In other education news, it's that time of year again: AISD parent-teacher conferences. All AISD schools will close on Oct. 9 to give elementary school parents a chance to meet with their child's teacher to discuss academic, social, or any other issues. Middle and high schools will also close for staff-development activities. Parents who plan to meet with their child's teacher should schedule an appointment ahead of time. For more info, visit www.austinisd.org. M.M.
The Travis Co. Sheriff's Office is getting help from the FBI in its search for a man who robbed the Washington Mutual bank at 6301 W. Parmer on Sept. 28. TCSO deputies responded to the bank alarm just after 3pm last Thursday; at the scene, several witnesses said a "dark-skinned man, possibly Hispanic" wearing a baseball cap, shorts, and a jacket robbed the bank of an undisclosed sum. TCSO says the man was carrying a black bag and fled the scene in a white Ford pickup truck. Interestingly, Williamson Co. Sheriff's deputies were already investigating a report of a stolen white Ford pickup taken from the Milwood subdivision earlier that afternoon. After the robbery, deputies found the truck, in the same area from which it was taken. Neither an aerial search by the APD nor a ground search by TCSO and WCSO turned up the suspect. TCSO is asking anyone with info on the robbery to call Detective Jim Anderson at 854-3727 or CrimeStoppers at 472-8477. Jordan Smith
In other law-enforcement news, Austin Police announced on Sept. 28 that the department has arrested and charged four people in connection with more than 200 acts of graffiti throughout the city. Police say Chaz Armijo, 17; Sean Yates, 17; Ian Graham, 19; and a 16-year-old unidentified because still a juvenile are responsible for spray-painted graffiti damage to 64 private businesses and 67 properties owned by the city of Austin, which, together, cost more than $76,000 to clean. Yates is facing three counts: two state-jail felonies, punishable by up to two years behind bars, and a single third-degree felony count, punishable by between two to 10 years in prison. Graham and Armijo each face a single state-jail-felony count; the juvenile is facing a third-degree felony charge. South Austin business owners were integral in helping police nab the four, whose tag names "Zenac" (Armijo), "Scope" (Yates), "Radar" (Graham), and "Gimix" (16-year-old) were responsible for defacing numerous buildings including at least one church. J.S.
To enhance safety in West Campus, UT women's service organization the Orange Jackets has teamed up with Austin Mayor Will Wynn and AT&T to install blue-light call boxes near six Capital Metro bus stops throughout the neighborhood. With the push of a button, each call box links directly to APD dispatchers. The new call boxes paid for by a $35,000 donation from AT&T Texas are located near bus stops at these locations: San Gabriel and 23rd, San Gabriel and 25th, Pearl and 22nd, Pearl and 25th, Rio Grande and 22nd, and Rio Grande and 26th. J.S.
City Council appointed one associate judge and three substitute judges to the Austin Municipal Court at its meeting last week. Associate Judge Yvonne Williams will be on overnight assignment at the Central Booking facility; the substitute judges include former Assistant City Attorney Gaye Brewer; Ryan Runkle, last working in the private sector; and St. Edward's graduate Sherry Statman. W.D.
What is the Calgary to Austin Peleton Project, and why have 30 crazy Canadians been bicycling for nine straight days? "We are here to raise support for cancer survivorship for all North Americans," said executive director, rider, and cancer survivor Brian McGregor. Concluding a 2,400-mile jaunt, the CTAPP team is expected to roll into Austin at about 2pm today (Thursday), just in time to join riders in the Lance Armstrong Foundation's LiveStrong Challenge taking place this Sunday. The CTAPP ride is a nine-day, 24-hour, relay-style excursion, with riders cycling in groups of six escorted by support vehicles. Last year's inaugural ride raised more than $300,000, which organizers expect to exceed this year. McGregor, who fought and overcame a cancer very similar to Armstrong's, created the CTAPP last year, and CTAPP riders came to town for Lance's Ride for the Roses. For more on this weekend's LiveStrong Challenge, see www.livestrongchallenge.org or www.ctapp.org. D.M.
On a 6-1 vote, the Hutto City Council approved on Monday night the Lower Colorado River Authority's recommendation that a new regional wastewater treatment plant be located on a 154-acre tract of land east of town known as Site B. The vote brings to a close a contentious battle over where to build the Lower Brushy Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant, a facility that eventually will treat 16 million gallons of sewage per day. The fight pitted neighbors in the small community of Norman's Crossing against the LCRA and against Williamson Co. Commissioner Frankie Limmer, who many believed had improperly attempted to wield his influence to have the plant located on a small, exposed parcel, known as Site D, in order to benefit future development on nearby Limmer-owned land. Limmer denied any impropriety. J.S.
Beyond City Limits
Attorney General Greg Abbott told the Senate Finance Committee this week that it would take $66.9 million this biennium to make his agency whole after the federal Deficit Reduction Act gutted the child support division's budget. Abbott picks up a big chunk of his child-support budget from federal incentives that are intended to reward states with high collection rates. Until the Deficit Reduction Act passed, those incentives were matched with additional federal funds. With a good track record and $2 billion in child support collections last year Abbott got a fairly favorable reception from the senators, who talked less about additional cuts and more about tightening up on Medicaid fraud and the recent voter-fraud cases. Kimberly Reeves
TxDOT accepted Cintra-Zachry's master development plan for Trans-Texas Corridor 35 last week, both opening the door on the development of projects and clearing the way to release documents that gubernatorial candidate Carole Keeton Strayhorn said Gov. Rick Perry was hiding from the public. The $3.5-million plan sets the stage for multimodal projects that will be completed along the tollway route between Dallas-Fort Worth and Mexico. Total value of those projects, when completed, will be an estimated $8.8 billion, with a concession payment to the state of $1.9 billion. Although the portion of TTC-35 through Central Texas has yet to be determined, it's almost guaranteed to be State Highway 130. In defense of holding back documents from Stayhorn, Chair Ric Williamson, a longtime Perry ally, said the documents were proprietary until the full plan was complete. K.R.
A federal judge in Louisiana's eastern district approved on Tuesday, Sept. 26, a settlement in class-action lawsuit Brou v. FEMA, filed in February on behalf of disabled Hurricane Katrina and Rita evacuees in an effort to get FEMA to accommodate their needs in its trailers, with such things as entrance ramps, wider doorways, ampler turn space for wheelchairs, grab bars near toilets, and kitchen appliances that are low enough to be accessible. "All of the named plaintiffs needed accessible trailers from FEMA, but all were provided with inaccessible trailers, no trailers, or were still waiting for simple modifications to make their trailers accessible," according to a press release from the Advocacy Center (of Louisiana), one of the parties representing the plaintiffs. "Approximately 25% of Katrina evacuees have disabilities, but at the time the suit was filed, only 1 to 2% were provided with accessible trailers." As a result of the settlement, evacuees in need of special accommodations in trailers can call a toll-free number (866/496-4297 in Louisiana and 888/294-2820 in Mississippi) starting Oct. 10 to make requests and to register complaints, said Nell Hahn, director of systems advocacy and litigation at the Advocacy Center. To read the entire settlement agreement, see www.fema.gov/plan/prepare/specialplans.shtm#1. Cheryl Smith
In other news of hurricane-spawned litigation, Pharr-based Global Limo Inc., the company involved in the most deadly Hurricane Rita-evacuation catastrophe the death of 23 nursing home residents on Sept. 23, 2005, after the bus they were riding in exploded outside Dallas was found guilty Tuesday by a jury in McAllen of failure to maintain its buses properly, not following inspection regulations, and "conspiring to lie on drivers' logbooks," according to the Associated Press. But the now-defunct company's owner, Jim Maples, was acquitted of the conspiracy charge, which, carrying a maximum prison term of five years and a several-hundred-thousand-dollar fine, was the most serious of the three charges. The charges weren't tied directly to the Rita-evacuation incident, as, according to the AP, U.S. District Judge Ricardo Hinojosa had previously ruled that prosecutors didn't successfully connect the accident to the bus' maintenance condition in their indictment. Global Limo Inc. faces up to $900,000 in fines. For local coverage of the litigation, see www.themonitor.com. C.S.