The Austin Chronicle

Naked City

October 13, 2006, News

Quote of the Week

"There is no term limit for Texas governor, and that's why people should be horrified." – Democrat Chris Bell, responding to an election trivia question thrown at him during last week's gubernatorial candidates debate


• Friday's TV debate for the governor's race delivered no great surprises, although it was entirely more engaging – and had reportedly higher ratings – than anybody had reason to hope. Best post-debate bounce belonged to Democrat Chris Bell when Houston lawyer John O'Quinn followed with a promise to provide or raise $5 million for the final month of campaigning. See "Election 2006."

• A proposal to have the city ethics commission prepare recommendations on council-member ethics, conflicts, salary, and benefits was killed Thursday when Lee Leffingwell argued that it amounted to asking the chickens to review the foxes. Now the council may look at pay rates, etc., itself, to enable broader public input.

• The Travis Co. Commissioners Court rejected City Council's plan to use the Cortaña tract for a new water treatment plant. The city responded by insisting it will then proceed at an even more environmentally sensitive site at Bull Creek. See "County Doesn't Blink on City's WTP 4 Challenge."

• If you haven't already, you can't. Register to vote, that is. Registration for the November general election ended Tuesday, Oct. 10.

• Washington, D.C., the national-election campaigns, and of course all the TV news networks remain obsessed with the Mark Foley scandal, an entertaining diversion from thornier issues like war in the Middle East, nuclear proliferation, international ecological breakdown, etc.

Naked City

• Instead of paying limousine driver Mohamad Abdulraouf the $1,650 he owed for a night of driving around town in a Ford Excursion stretch limo, 32-year-old Christian Sabon pistol-whipped the driver and, according to an arrest affidavit filed with the Travis Co. Sheriff's Office, told Abdulraouf he was going to kill him. After Abdulraouf dropped Sabon off at Sabon's game-room business in Merrilltown Square Shopping Center in North Austin some time after 4am on Oct. 2, Sabon allegedly "displayed three different guns and pointed two of them" at Abdulraouf, then whacked him in the shoulder before he could flee and call 911. Deputy Alan Howard arrived on the scene and, after hearing the driver's story, called in the TCSO SWAT team to help get Sabon out of the strip-mall game room. Three hours later, at about 9am, Sabon surrendered and was taken into custody – as it turns out, he passed out drunk in his office and was apparently unaware that the SWAT team was outside. Sabon, who had previously been arrested for aggravated promotion of prostitution, drunken driving, and driving on a suspended license, according to the TCSO, has been charged with felony aggravated assault, punishable by up to 20 years in prison, and has been released from jail on a $20,000 bond. – Jordan Smith

• In other Travis Co. Sheriff's Office news, the Crime Suppression Unit and SWAT team conducted a drug raid at a house near Zavala Elementary School on Oct. 4, arresting one juvenile for drug possession. The house, at 2019 E. Third, has been under surveillance by the TCSO since July; although TCSO spokesman Roger Wade said investigators believe a considerable amount of drugs have been dealt from the house, officers found just five rocks of crack cocaine, weighing a total of 1.8 grams, and random drug paraphernalia "consistent" with heroin use. The juvenile, 16, has been charged with felony crack possession – punishable by two-to-10 years in prison, if the teen is certified to stand trial as an adult – while five adults who were taken into custody during the raid have been released without charge. TCSO says its investigation is ongoing. – J.S.

Pay-as-you-throw trash service gets a one-day bump this week in order to let employees attend a co-worker's funeral. As Tuesday, Oct. 10 was bumped to Wednesday the 11th, the rest of the collection dates slide forward one day. For more info, see – Wells Dunbar

• Impaired driving was a factor in six of the city's 10 most recent traffic fatalities, APD reports. APD's Highway Enforcement Command has taken to regular review and reporting on roadway fatalities, to help define patterns and identify problem spots. There were nine accidents between Aug. 26 and Oct. 3, resulting in 10 fatalities, including three pedestrians and one bicyclist. Police cited driving "culture" – unsafe lane changes, driving while talking on the phone, etc. – as a contributing factor in five of the nine wrecks. As of Oct. 3, there've been 52 traffic fatalities this year, compared to 61 in 2005. – J.S.

• On Monday, Council Member Mike Martinez bestowed honors on CERT, the Community Emergency Response Team in charge of disaster-relief operations. CERT members are trained through the city's Office of Emergency Management to deal with catastrophic, unforeseen events, natural and manmade. Several teams with differing areas of specialization exist – from a Spanish-language CERT to a field operation team. "[T]o know that we have volunteers trained to deal with the aftermath of a disaster or who can provide vital services in the absence of emergency response workers makes a tremendous difference," said Martinez in a press release. The former firefighter turned council member also honored founding CERT team member Paul Saldana and Robin Johnson with Distinguished Service accolades. – W.D.

• According to a new study, Austin is the "most impatient city" among the 20 most populous in the U.S. Guideline Inc. researchers made this determination based on our preponderance of convenience services, the idea being that the place with the most one-hour cleaners or quick-service restaurants must be the place with the most demand for them. Out of 12 categories, Austin ranked first in three (in-and-out gyms, quick-copy centers, and quick-oil-change shops) while snagging the No. 2 and 3 rankings for convenience stores, Wi-Fi spots, and overnight-delivery and speed-dating services. While the causal link is questionable – can impatience really explain speed dating? – the study still proves an interesting new way for Austin to be the best at something, especially with Houston and Dallas at No. 3 and 5 and places like L.A., Chicago, and New York City at No. 17, 18, and 19, respectively. The question remains whether we're actually impatient – maybe New York's lack of convenience creates a more impatient populace? Regardless, Austin's disappointing No. 16 in online city services is enough to keep us plenty crabby, especially considering Dallas snagged first place in that category. – Nora Ankrum

• AISD is planning to implement an education model known as First Things First at Reagan, LBJ, Crockett, and Travis high schools. First Things First is one part of an overall effort by AISD to redesign the high schools, and the program aims to pair high school students with mentors, who could be teachers, counselors, or classified staff members. The model, which has been implemented in districts across the country, aims to give large high schools a more personal feel so that students know they have someone they can go to with problems. Each mentor will be responsible for meeting regularly with approximately 15 students and keeping track of their grades and attendance. It will be up to the student and mentor to find time to meet. "The idea is to keep the program flexible," says AISD spokeswoman Roxanne Evans. "We want to institutionalize what is already happening informally. Clearly, freshman and at-risk students will need the most help, and others might not need as much time." Crockett and Travis have already implemented a version of First Things First, and LBJ and Reagan are soon to follow. – Michael May

• In other AISD news, the district is holding a parent symposium Saturday on Addressing the Great Gripes of Gifted Kids. It's part of a program that identifies and caters to approximately 4,500 students who have been identified as "gifted." A parent or teacher nominates these students, then they go through a series of diagnostic tests to determine whether they are indeed gifted or just well-loved. Although everyone wants to have a brilliant child, AISD program specialist Rhonda Boyer says that it comes with challenges. "The schools are focused on closing the achievement gap," Boyer says. "So it can be difficult for teachers to meet the needs of advanced students. It can also be very isolating for students, because their peers don't have the same intellectual ability." The symposium helps parents deal with these issues and is being held Saturday, Oct. 14, at Bedichek Middle School from 9am to noon. – M.M.

• The city is, once more, trying to negotiate with UT over land-use planning. In the past, it's been issues like the orientation of the Blanton Museum or the placement of the university's new hotel and conference center on MLK. This time, it's trying to determine what the university intends to do with 450 acres it owns in Far North Austin. As long-term neighborhood planning for the North Burnet/Gateway area moves forward, city planners have found that some of the bigger pieces of raw land in that area belong to UT, either at the Pickle Research Center or on the site of the Microelectronics and Computer Technology Corporation Building. As state government, UT has no obligation to play ball with the city on zoning issues, but failing to do so could leave the plan incomplete, especially if the university intends to sell off any land. At a council Land Use Subcommittee meeting last week, Council Member Brewster McCracken urged the city to continue to reach out to UT to determine long-term uses for the area. – Kimberly Reeves

• In other development news, a year after the Regional Water Quality Protection Plan was unveiled – a plan intended to cover all jurisdictions within the Barton Springs Contributing Zone of the Edwards Aquifer – only the city of Dripping Springs has begun to implement significant policy changes. At a meeting last week of the core committee of the RWQPP – the first meeting in well more than a year – Mayor Todd Purcell said his city would end up penalized for its tougher water-quality regulations if other cities and counties failed to join him. For its part, the city of Austin is studying increased mitigation areas on small streams. Travis County is still in the process of passing a conservation development ordinance, which encourages greater green-space set-asides. – K.R.

• County commissioners will start their search for a civil courthouse site by assessing two county-owned properties. One is the former bank-turned-tax-collection office that now houses various county offices, and the other is the San Antonio Street garage, which sits near the Blackwell-Thurman Criminal Justice Center. The bank site is a full downtown block, but to use it will require a waiver from the state's Capitol view corridor, a waiver that would have to be carried by a member of the Travis Co. legislative delegation during the next session. The ideal site, according to county and court officials, would be close enough to create a walkway between the civil and criminal courts. The final assessment should get back to commissioners before the end of the year. The county is aiming to get the courthouse on the ballot by 2009 and open by the end of 2011. – K.R.

• Members of Council Member Mike Martinez's family were injured in a car wreck over the weekend, but all are reportedly doing fine. Martinez was not in the wreck. News and police reports said Martinez's father was turning left on a green arrow when his car was struck by a car running a red light; Martinez's mother was briefly hospitalized, and his father and son were bruised. The driver of the other car ran from the scene and has not been found. – Lee Nichols

Beyond City Limits

• Legendary federal District Judge William Wayne Justice has been chosen to receive the first ever Morris Dees Justice Award, honoring a lawyer whose career has been devoted to "serving the public interest and pursuing justice." The award is named after lawyer Morris Dees, co-founder and chief trial counsel for the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala. Judge Justice, federal district judge in Texas' Eastern District, will receive the award Nov. 16 in New York. His "accomplishments should make us all proud to be Americans and proud that great lawyers in the tradition of John Adams and Clarence Darrow still walk among us," said Dees in a press release. "He is humble enough to bend down to help the least among us and courageous enough to walk fearless in the face of public disapproval." Justice graduated from UT School of Law in 1942 and worked as a city attorney in Athens, Texas, before being tapped in 1961 by President Kennedy to serve on the federal bench. He's best known as the judge who imposed federal oversight on the Texas prison system in the landmark case Ruiz v. Estelle, which led to a complete overhaul of the Texas system, and as the judge who ordered the Texas Education Agency to desegregate public schools in United States v. Texas. – J.S.

• Former GOP leader Tom Pauken, who heads Gov. Rick Perry's recently formed Texas Task Force on Appraisal Reform, told a business group last week that he has little sympathy for those who want to maintain the appraisal system's status quo. He told the Texas Taxpayers and Research Association that he intends to take a hard look at appraisal caps, revenue caps, and an overhaul of the current appraisal process. He said there was a simmering anger in the state – from both homeowners and businesses – over rising appraisal values. He predicted strong resistance – and an effort to kill any proposal his task force made – but noted it was easier to kill a proposal than to fix the problem. The task force's final hearing will be in Austin on Nov. 21. – K.R.

• Forecasters at Colorado State University released on Oct. 3 their "Forecast of Atlantic Hurricane Activity for October-November 2006 and Seasonal Update Through September," predicting "below-average activity largely due to developing El Niño conditions in the central and eastern Pacific." The six-month season, which ends in November, has been much quieter than meteorologists predicted. The report's authors attribute this to "mid-level dryness in the tropical Atlantic (with large amounts of African dust) which greatly reduced August activity and to the rapid late summer development of an El Niño event which we and nearly all [El Niño Souther Oscillation] forecasts did not anticipate." Economists have attributed the recent fall in gas prices largely to the quiet hurricane season, which wreaked havoc on oil industry ventures in the Gulf last year. See – Cheryl Smith

• The Washington-based Center for Public Integrity announced partial victory in a more than two-year-long Freedom of Information Act battle. On Sept. 28, a federal court granted partial summary judgment to the center in a lawsuit brought against the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, ordering the agency to turn over redacted versions of 256 e-mail messages. The center filed suit in December 2004, seeking the release of about 70 e-mails it had sought as part of an investigative report, "The Politics of Oil," that later found FERC to be aggressively undermining the authority of state and local governments to reject dozens of proposed liquefied natural gas facilities all across the country. In the past five years, there has been an exponential jump in the number of proposed LNG terminals, which are often opposed by nearby communities due to safety concerns. The report also detailed the cozy relationship between the commission and the industry it regulates. The e-mails will shed more light on the interaction between FERC and the energy industry. – Daniel Mottola

• Texas is set to receive three grants through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Cooperative Endangered Species Conservation Fund, as part of $27 million in land acquisition and conservation planning aid to 27 states. Two grants, totaling $4.1 million, will go toward habitat acquisition near San Antonio, benefiting 19 species in the sensitive Edwards Aquifer recharge zone. The last grant of $1 million will help with conservation efforts just upstream from San Marcos Springs. Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne announced the grants last week, calling them "a means for states to work with land owners and communities to conserve habitat and foster conservation stewardship efforts for future generations." But conservationists have their eye on Kempthorne, a Bush appointee and former pro-development governor of Idaho. He had among the worst environmental records in the Senate in the 1990s and is regarded as a cheerleader for oil drilling on Alaska's protected lands. – D.M.

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