Headlines and Happenings from Austin and Beyond
"It's like former Mayor Kirk Watson is fond of saying, 'The enemy of good is perfect.' This may not be perfect, but it's really good." Tom Terkel, chair of the citizens committee on the bonds, answering criticism of the bond package on the Nov. 7 ballot
Quote of the Week
The city announced Wednesday that it will appeal the Oct. 4 federal ruling by Judge Sam Sparks declaring that part of its anti-smoking ordinance is unconstitutionally vague and limiting "the city's ability to enforce the ordinance," reads a city press release.
Sensing that Democrat Chris Bell picked up some momentum both in name ID and campaign cash after the Oct. 6 gubernatorial debate, incumbent Rick Perry went on the offensive, attacking Bell in TV ads, Perry's first televised acknowledgment that he actually has opponents. See p.22.
Conventional wisdom among the punditocracy this week holds that the Democrats will sweep the GOP from national power next month, possibly in both houses of Congress. We'd like to think it's true, but we also know not to underestimate the Dems' ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
On that note, early voting starts Monday, Oct. 23. Election Day is Nov. 7.
If you've noticed some stank in your drank, you're not alone. The city has announced that an algae bloom in the city's water supply is responsible for the off-taste and odor of the city's water supply. "A similar taste and odor fluctuation resulted from a blue green algae die-off in the City's raw water supply in October 2004," reads a city press release; "Austin Water Utility officials believe the same cycle is occurring now." The city assures us that the supply is still safe to drink, if just a little fragrant. Wells Dunbar
In other local water news, last week Austin got 1,600 new employees in the span of 15 minutes. That many Asian grass carp were rapidly released into Lake Austin Thursday, Oct. 12. Their job: to fight the creeping scourge of hydrilla. The herbivorous carp are big fans of the aquatic weed, which, first found in Lake Austin in 1999, often threatens to overtake the city's waterways. A September survey found hydrilla increased to 33 acres, over the city's goal of less than 30 acres. As the weed decreases, don't fear that the carp population will surge; the fish are sterile. W.D.
Also, never ones to sit down on the job, members of Lee Leffingwell's Water Conservation Task Force trumpeted the latest and greatest in toilet technology last week, with the added incentive of rebates on eco-conscious cans. So-called high-efficiency toilets average around 1.25 gallons a flush, about 20% less wet stuff than the average low-flow crapper. For those replacing an ailing throne, selecting one of the city's dozens of recommended commodes could lead to a $100 rebate; by electing to install a high-efficiency stool, builders and remodelers can get an additional $50 rebate. For more on the rebate program, visit www.cityofaustin.org/watercon/hetlist.htm. W.D.
The Sustainable Food Center's downtown farmers' market open year-round from 9am-1pm Saturdays at Republic Square Park, Fourth and Guadalupe begins accepting food stamps Saturday, Oct. 21. Food stamp recipients can now use their cards to "purchase locally grown fruits and vegetables directly from the farmers who grow them, and can also buy other fresh, healthy, locally produced foods at the Austin Farmers' Market," reads a SFC press release. So what took so long? As usual in commerce these days, it's all about the plastic. According to the press release, the Department of Agriculture typically relies on transferring benefits electronically to get recipients the funds for which they qualify people typically don't get actual stamps any more, in other words. Like many farmers' markets, the one at Republic Square Park is outside in the open, with no telephone lines or electricity. So it's setting up a wireless and rechargeable battery operation for benefits cards. Food stamp recipients whose cards are swiped will receive wooden coins to shop with, SFC director Suzanne Santos said. Based on how the new operation goes, SFC will likely implement it eventually at the Plaza Saltillo market (open Thursdays from 4-7pm, April through August) and at individual farmers' food stands, Santos said. Cheryl Smith
Speaking of food, this is national school-lunch week, and feeding kids is one area where Texas schools lead the nation. According to the Center for Public Policy Priorities, almost every school in Texas provides a hot lunch, and the program is responsible for feeding 2.8 million kids. The meals are provided for free to children up to 130% of the poverty level ($21,580 for a family of three) and less than 40 cents each for kids up to 180% of poverty level ($30,710 for a family of three). In Texas, a majority of students qualify for free or reduced lunch. Texas has also been working to make the meals more palatable, as well as healthier; the Texas Education Agency has hired a Le Cordon Bleu-trained chef from Austin's Texas Culinary Academy to create new recipes that use fresh vegetables and whole-grain rice. Michael May
In other education-related news, the AISD board of trustees has responded to the recent media attention on school violence and declared this to be Campus Crime Stoppers Week. The Crime Stoppers program provides a 24-hour hotline that students can call to anonymously report criminal activity on their campus, anything from drug dealing to violence. If the info leads to an arrest, or the recovery of weapons or drugs, the student can step forward and get a cash reward. The program is entering its second decade. In the last 10 years, schools have received almost 1,500 tips, leading to the recovery of 104 weapons on campus. Student tipsters have received a total of $30,000 in rewards. The Campus Crime Stoppers hotline is 499-TIPS (499-8477). M.M.
The Austin chapter of the nonpartisan AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, or ACT UP (www.actupaustin.org), which aims to end the spread of the disease, blasted the state's Sunset Commission on Oct. 17, for its failure to address substantive HIV/AIDS prevention and education in its report on the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. The report mentions the disease just once in its 174 pages, even though TDCJ inmates have rates of HIV infection five times higher than the general public, making the disease the No. 1 killer of Texas inmates. "[It's] stunning that the Sunset Commission could commit such criminal negligence by ignoring the need for HIV prevention," said ACT UP's Heather Mitchell. Due to limited time and resources, HIV/AIDS education and prevention just "didn't make it into the focus" of the report, said Sunset Commission director Joe Longley. Instead, the commission focused on "treatment and recidivism" issues, he said, adding that public hearings scheduled for November 14 and 15 are designed to let people raise issues that didn't receive much attention in the report and that he encourages activists to bring their concerns about HIV/AIDS to those meetings, which will take place in Room 120 of the State's Reagan Office Building. Jordan Smith
On a lighter note, the Travis Co. Sheriff's Office needs your help locating a vacant 30,000- to 35,000-square-foot warehouse space with room for an office, heating and air conditioning, bathrooms, electricity, and phone lines to use through Jan. 5 as the headquarters for the annual Brown Santa program. This tax-exempt organization provides food and presents for thousands of needy Travis Co. residents each year. For more info, or to donate property to the cause, contact TCSO Senior Deputy Mary Rodriguez at 247-2682 or by pager at 935-1252. Ho, ho, ho. J.S.
In an attempt to tame the bureaucratic beast that is the Federal Emergency Management Agency housing-assistance reapplication process, the agency recently did some major streamlining by creating a single form that hurricane evacuees can fill out and send in, replacing a confusing multipart process. This is a big deal, because Katrina evacuees who successfully "recertify" for FEMA's Indirect Assistance housing program will get federal aid through Feb. 28, 2007, and Rita evacuees will receive help through March 24. Previously, evacuees had to include in their recertification packets documentation of prehurricane mortgage or rent payments and a long-term housing plan, among other things. Also, there is no longer an Oct. 31 deadline to get the form in. The agency now just wants the application "as soon as possible," said spokesman Don Jacks in an e-mail. Call FEMA at 800/621-3362 (TTY 800/462-7585) to get the new forms, which will also be available at a recertification workshop sponsored by Texas Interagency/Interfaith Disaster Response (www.tidr.org) from 2-8pm Thursday, Oct. 26, at the Rock Church at Highway 183 and MLK. C.S.
Also of note to hurricane evacuees, Austin WorkSource (north office: 454-9675, east office: 223-5480, south office: 381-4200) is still holding a lot of money that could be of help to you. Among other funding streams, the Texas Workforce Commission makes federal food stamp employment and training money available to Austin WorkSource. The nonprofit also still has anywhere from $800,000 to $1 million in Labor Department National Emergency Grant funds for employment, training, and relocation services. Evacuees who go through an application and orientation process can qualify for gas cards, bus passes, school financial assistance, case management, and other services. To learn more, see www.workintexas.com. C.S.
The Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization Transportation Policy board has agreed to review the various iterations of the "Y" road project in Oak Hill, including the Fix 290 parkway plan. City Council Member Betty Dunkerley has asked for a matrix of the various proposed transportation projects intended to fix congestion at the intersection, focusing on viability, cost, and impact. A vote will likely come by year's end. In the meantime, the Oak Hill Association of Neighborhoods hosted a meeting with Capital Metro and various civic and environmental leaders on Tuesday night to discuss using Cap Met's transit center in Oak Hill as the long-desired town center for Oak Hill. That will require some high-level coordination between Capital Metro, TxDOT, and the city. Kimberly Reeves
Shock Value, a car dealership offering 100% electric cars, held its grand opening last week, showcasing an inventory of three-wheeled sedans and pickups, known as "city-class" electric vehicles, capable of reaching upward of 40 mph and going 40 miles between charges. Owners Capricia Prikryl and John Martin never saw themselves as car dealers, but when California-based ZAP! (Zero Air Pollution), who imports EVs from China, told the couple they couldn't fill their order for a car because Texas had no licensed dealers, the two took matters into their own hands. Nine weeks after pitching an Austin dealership idea to ZAP!, Shock Value opened its doors at 2711 S. Lamar and expects to have its dealer's license finalized by the state next week. The ZAP! Xebras retail for around $11,000, fully charge in six to eight hours, and can be licensed and insured as motorcycles, according to Prikryl. Their downsides include no AC and a short, two-year battery lifespan, but driving oil- and emission-free outweighs the trade-offs for Martin and Prikryl, who are teaming with local Janet's Solar Electric to build a pavilion where EV drivers can charge up for free. See www.shockvalueaustin.com or www.zapworld.com. Daniel Mottola
The city has crunched new numbers on the cost-sharing prospects for the Waller Creek tunnel project, which is intended to pull much of the east side of Downtown out of the flood plain and make it viable for heavier redevelopment. According to the new numbers, the project will now cost $123.6 million to build, plus maintenance. That can still work with only the tightest room to spare if the city agrees to throw in all city taxes on new development and the county agrees to part with half of its increased tax revenue to float the bonds. Council Member Betty Dunkerley, who will lead city negotiations with Sheryl Cole, says the proposal is still in its initial stages. "We have not made a formal proposal to the commissioners," Dunkerley told In Fact Daily on Tuesday. "What we've put together is a little bit of a history of the creek what's good about it, what's bad, the history of the project, the overview of the tunnel, how the tunnel would operate and the new numbers." K.R.
The Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer Conservation District holds its annual Austin Cave Festival at the Village of Western Oaks Karst Preserve on Saturday, Oct. 28. Attendees can embark on caving adventures into the preserve's Live Oak and Get Down Caves and learn about the 9-acre preserve's six karst features, the species of concern that dwell there, and how to creatively protect water quality and save H20. The latter is more crucial than ever this year since Edwards Aquifer remains in a critical-stage drought. Festival guests can cheer up with Halloween story time and karst sing-alongs down in the caves, check out bats up close, and learn about other Austin animals that call caves home. The free event is located at La Cresada and Davis Lane just west of MoPac, from 9am-4pm. See www.bseacd.org/western_oaks.htm. D.M.
As our government makes times more treacherous for immigrants in this country, it is becoming, like it or not, the job of community groups to step up to the mounting challenge of protecting the increasingly unprotected. One of the most threatening aspects of the recent immigrant backlash is the eagerness of our lawmakers to lock up every Tom, Dick, and Julio for as long as they please, without any access to legal representation. Lucky for the detainees, the Political Asylum Project of Austin recently got funding from the Vera Institute of Justice to expand its legal presentations service to detention centers in San Antonio, Pearsall, and Laredo. The presentations explain crucial logistics to detainees, such as what they can expect in immigration court, what their legal options are, and whether returning to their country of origin is the next best course of action. The work of PAPA, which began way back in 1987, has not gone unnoticed: On Oct. 19, PAPA, along with Casa de Proyecto Libertad (project freedom) of Harlingen, will receive the 2006 Daniel Levy Memorial Award, which recognizes groups for their "creative, collective, and socially conscious approach to advocacy." Diana Welch
Speaking of honors, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. will be the first recipient of the Molly Ivins Give 'Em Hell Award, which Ivins herself will present, at next month's Bill of Rights Dinner, the 16th annual awards event and fundraiser of the Texas Civil Rights Project. The TCRP created the award in Ivins' honor and to recognize other "courageous and outspoken journalists," said TCRP director Jim Harrington. Pitts, the keynote speaker, is a Miami Herald columnist who won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2004. In other recognitions, the TCRP will also honor Georgetown law professor Neal Katyal with the Michael Tigar Human Rights Award. Katyal was the lead counsel in a case that prompted the U.S. Supreme Court to rule that Guantanamo detainees have legal rights to hearings to determine whether they should remain in prison. The fundraiser is set for Nov. 2 at the Austin Hilton. Call 474-5073 for info, or go to www.texascivilrightsproject.org. Amy Smith
Sone Williamson Co. judges might stand trial for allegedly depriving indigent defendants of their right to counsel. In an Oct. 4 ruling, Judge Joseph H. Hart denied a county motion to dismiss a class-action lawsuit filed by the Texas Fair Defense Project, contending that the county systematically (and often sarcastically) thwarts requests for court-appointed representation. For example, Sylvia Peterson, a cancer patient, claims a judge justified his refusal with "you look fine to me" and a sneer. Steve Ackley, attorney for the county, had argued that a district court has no jurisdiction; Hart dispatched the motion in short order but granted an appeal. Dominic Gonzales of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, a nonprofit assisting TFDP, says the county would rather spend money fighting a lawsuit than follow the law. "The plaintiffs don't want money or their cases dismissed. They want the county to follow the Constitution and state law," concurs Andrea Marsh, TFDP director. The county claims an appeal could be a money-saver if it prevents a trial. Defendants named in the suit are Williamson Co. Judge John C. Doerfler; county court-at-law judges Suzanne Brooks, Tim Wright, and Donald Higginbotham; and Judge William Thomas Eastes, a Georgetown magistrate. Patricia J. Ruland
Beyond City limits
After weeks of denying rumors, troubled talk-radio network Air America filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection last week. The move was forced by creditors from the network's "earliest days," according to a network press release. A new line of credit has been arranged to maintain operations during "what we are confident will be a very brief restructuring period," the release says. "We're looking at this essentially as a nonevent," said Bob Proud, VP of operations for Border Media Partners, which carries Air America locally on KOKE-AM (1600). "We believe them when they say they will continue." Meanwhile, Border Media has sold its Dallas affiliate carrying Air America, KXEB-AM, to a group that dropped the progressive talk for a format of Catholic programming. Proud says Border Media decided to pull out of Dallas and buy two new stations in San Antonio to strengthen its presence there. "It just makes more sense to concentrate on other markets," he said. Kevin Brass