News briefs from Austin, the region, and elsewhere
"Congressmen only give their votes for the war; mothers give their sons and daughters." Democratic Congressional District 31 candidate Mary Beth Harrell, whose son is serving in Iraq
Quote of the Week
Early voting for the Nov. 7 election began this week, with Travis Co. totals higher than usual. For election coverage, see "Election News."
The Rolling Stones came to Zilker Park, for a Bigger Bang evening that everyone agrees was "transplendent." Said Mick, "Bob Wills is still the King."
In her Oct. 20 debate with Democratic challenger Barbara Ann Radnofsky, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison said that if she knew at the time that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction, she would not have voted to approve the invasion. This turnabout put the incumbent Republican somewhat to the left of the Democratic leadership, including New York Sen. Hillary Clinton and former presidential candidate John Kerry.
Two weeks after proclaiming that his news department was "headed in the right direction," KXAN news director Bill Seitzler resigned last week after 10 months on the job. Nicknamed "Wild Bill" on an industry message board, Seitzler had implemented sweeping changes in the newsroom, creating what many describe as a bitterly unhappy workplace. In addition, he implemented what many viewed as a more wild-eyed, sensational approach to the news. Sample headline from last week: "Kids, Halloween, and Sex Offenders." Seitzler's abrupt decision to jump ship is just the latest sign of turmoil at KXAN, once regarded as one of Austin's most stable stations. In May, general manager Carlos Fernandez was fired by corporate parent LIN Television, which has seen its stock price plummet in the past two years. Neither Seitzler nor general manager Eric Lassberg, who took over the station three months ago, returned calls seeking comment. See "KXAN News Director Quits" for more. Kevin Brass
In other media news, although the sale isn't finalized yet, Entercom Communications Corp. will formally take over control of four local radio stations on Nov. 1 under the terms of a local marketing agreement. CBS sold the local stations KXBT-FM (Beat 104.3), KAMX-FM (Mix 94.7), KKMJ-FM (Majic 95.5), and KJCE-AM (talk radio) in August, in order to concentrate on larger markets. Entercom, which bought 15 stations from CBS, was scheduled to take control of the local stations on Oct. 1, but the move was held up by regulatory issues. John Hiatt, market manager for the Austin stations, says he doesn't expect any drastic changes, although Entercom may spend more money to promote and expand the stations. CBS was always reluctant to spend money on stations outside its top markets, he says. K.B.
To the tune of $3 million, Advanced Micro Devices has announced a commitment to support two land conservation groups the Hill Country Conservancy and the Trust for Public Land. The bulk of the gift will be used to buy and protect land over the Edwards Aquifer, in order to prevent polluting development. (Of course, the most significant Austin development threatening to pollute the aquifer is none other than AMD's enormous new facility, being built off Southwest Parkway.) AMD will donate the first $1.5 million this year. The Hill Country Conservancy will receive $800,000 to conserve large tracts of land (including the nearly 500-acre Ragsdale Tract on Onion Creek) and create a regional trail system. The Trust for Public Land will receive $700,000, earmarked for its Texas Heritage Land Fund and other conservation projects. Katherine Gregor
The Austin Parks Foundation is holding a raffle at $10 a ticket for a chance to take the "first whack" at the Intel shell the downtown eyesore all of Austin loves to hate. The honorary whack could involve fun with jackhammers, a wrecking ball, or an implosion! The raffle benefits Republic Square park, which faces the site (soon to be home to a new federal courthouse and plaza). Proceeds will fund park improvements such as additional benches and trash cans. See www.austinparks.org for raffle tickets. The winner will be announced Nov. 8 at the Downtown Austin Neighborhood Association block party at Republic Square Park K.G.
Another political action committee pushing for bond passage has entered the fray. Watershed-rowdies Yes on 2 and 3 rallied Tuesday evening at a Zilker Clubhouse party in support of the eco-friendly bonds. For those of you keeping score, Proposition 2 allots $95 million toward the city's watershed-protection master plan and $50 million toward purchasing open space around Barton Springs. Proposition 3 includes $54.5 million for improvement to park and pool facilities, $10 million for new park and recreation facilities, and $20 million for buying new parkland. The PAC filed with the city clerk earlier this month, with former Travis Co. Commissioner Valarie Bristol on board as campaign treasurer. In other Prop PAC news, UNITY PAC, the group behind holistic bond pushers 7 Steps for a Better Austin, recently filed its 30-day-out finance report, and it's a doozy. UNITY, whose treasurer is none other than Will Wynn, reported $107,225 in contributions and $17,324 in expenditures, for a whopping $89,900 on hand heading into the election. With I'm for 4 PAC's $44,000 raised running a distant second, UNITY handily dwarfs its fellow bond proponents. Wells Dunbar
The Day Labor Community Advisory Committee is scoping out South Central Austin for a second day labor site for the city possibly a more temporary arrangement with local vendors such as Home Depot and Lowe's rather than a permanent site such as the First Worker's location off I-35 near 51st. The decision is up to council, but the more temporary arrangement would probably win the approval of the Ridgetop neighborhood, which has been less than enthused with the First Worker's site. Lori Renteria, who's working with the committee, says it's been hard for the neighborhood to sort out whether increased crime and loitering is due to the day labor site or not. Neighborhood officials insist the city led them to believe the day labor site would be far more temporary than it is. In any case, a recommendation should go to council by the end of January. Kimberly Reeves
Parks Department director Warren Struss told the Parks and Recreation board this week that the city had been less than successful in nailing down a site for a Bloch Foundation Cancer Survivor Plaza. The RA Bloch Cancer Foundation think H&R Block was considering a $1 million donation to PARD to create and maintain a cancer survivors plaza, which it has sponsored in large cities around the country. The donation, however, comes with a catch taking Victor Salmones' multifigure sculpture, Cancer: There's Hope. While the sculpture is much beloved by the late Richard Bloch, one Houston art critic described it as having the "banal features of storefront mannequins" and said she had an urge to plow it down in her minivan every time she passed it in Houston's Hermann Park. Initially, the plan was to put the statue at Waterloo Park. Then it was Pease Park. Struss told the Parks board this week that the foundation was less than happy with the Pease Park location. The city parks department will continue to look for a site, Struss said. K.R.
Five years ago Michael Strong and Whole Foods CEO John Mackey found that they vigorously agreed on two things: They're both "absolutely Sixties peace-and-love idealists" and "entrepreneurialism and free markets are the best way to promote peace and prosperity." The discovery led to FLOW, an organization that doesn't directly initiate projects toward these ends but instead provides fertile ground for them to blossom. FLOW's Web site is a smorgasbord of resources, discussion groups, and articles explaining how entrepreneurial initiative can lead to FLOW's four heady goals peace, prosperity, happiness, and sustainability and the philosophy has been bolstered by recent events. A study by Columbia associate professor Erik Gartzke found that "economic freedom is 50 times more effective in diminishing violent conflict than democracy," and Muhammad Yunus and Grameen Bank won this year's Nobel Peace Prize for their work toward ending poverty through economic development. Still, Strong and Mackey have found that FLOW can be "overwhelming" in its scope, so they've narrowed their focus with Peace Through Commerce, which hosts a gathering this weekend where people can come together for free-flowing discussion on achieving peace through entrepreneurial projects. As Strong says, it's "a different way to spend Saturday night." For details, see www.peacethroughcommerce.com. Nora Ankrum
State Republican leaders insist that children's health care is a top priority, but their actions speak louder than words. Democratic House leader Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, accused Rick Perry and company Tuesday of enacting a series of obstacles designed to disqualify needy children from coverage under the Children's Health Insurance Program. This "permanent wall," Coleman said, was enacted during the 2003 Legislature's budget-slashing session that included passage of a bill that brought sweeping changes to the state's delivery of health and human services. CHIP enrollment currently has 200,000 fewer children than it had in September 2003, Coleman said. The CHIP drop started before the state privatized much of its health-care delivery services, awarding an $899 million contract to Bermuda-based Accenture, he said. As they did in the 2005 session, Democratic lawmakers will likely make another legislative attempt to tear down the "wall" that has placed Texas at the top of the list of states with the highest number of uninsured children. Amy Smith
Beyond City Limits
Rick Perry managed to make headlines Tuesday, telling an East Texas crowd that the budget surplus was "so friggin' big" that he's considering cutting the state's new proposed business tax before it goes into effect. "Our budget surplus is going to be so friggin' big," Perry said in a Fort Worth Star-Telegram article. "So why not lower the [business] tax rate down to three-fourths of a cent, or a half-cent? I'm all for that." A memo from House Speaker Tom Craddick, circulating the Capitol and posted on the online Quorum Report Wednesday, noted that the budget surplus could be as high as $15.5 billion but that $9.7 billion is already claimed for supplemental needs such as fixing the teacher retirement system and paying for property tax relief. K.R.
Maybe they're just blowing smoke, but the big dogs at TXU Corp. are threatening to sue a Dallas-area environmental group for using the company's trademark on a bigger-than-life-sized float of Gov. Rick Perry, who's sucking (or kissing, it's hard to tell) a fume-spewing smokestack bearing TXU's logo. According to the Dallas Morning News, TXU attorney David Poole sent a certified letter to Downwinders at Risk advising the group to remove the logo or it will have more than its health to worry about. The Morning News quoted this response from Paul Levy of Public Citizen, which is aiding the enviro group: TXU "will receive something in writing telling them that their demand is silly. Mr. Pool is a small man." Meanwhile, Downwinders at Risk plans to keep sporting the float, which was inspired by Perry's rush to help TXU build coal-fired plants in the Dallas area. The group is especially keen on showing up, with float in tow, at Perry's campaign events. A.S.
In related news, Environmental Defense's Texas office filed suit Oct. 17 in Travis Co. District Court asking for an injunction requiring the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to follow its own rules for permitting, arguing that Gov. Perry's coal permit fast-track undermines the TCEQ's ability to conduct the fair review required by law. ED's suit also claims the TCEQ has skirted its responsibility to require plants to employ the "Best Available Control Technology" to reduce emissions such as coal-gasification or Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle technology, proven to be drastically cleaner than the proposed old-school pulverized coal plants. Additionally, the suit claims the TCEQ broke the law by recently deleting a definition of BACT from the state regulations and by not requiring permit applicants to evaluate the potential plants' cumulative downwind air-quality impacts on cities such as Austin, Dallas, and Fort Worth. "It's time to find out if these written statutes are really the law or if they're just guidelines to be ignored when convenient," said Jim Marston, ED's regional director. Daniel Mottola
Speaking of dirty air, while Federal Judge Sam Sparks' recent smoking-ban decision may have led to a little more indoor air pollution in Austin, he may have saved the region tons of the outdoor kind with his other decision of late: denying aluminum-giant Alcoa permission to transfer the permit for its notoriously polluting coal-burning power plant in Rockdale to utility TXU, who had hoped to build a new plant to power the aluminum smelting facility there after Alcoa was court-ordered in 2003 to clean up or shut down its coal plant. In August, the U.S. Justice Department ordered Alcoa to pay close to $9.2 million in penalties for nearly 2,000 alleged air-pollution violations. Sparks' latest ruling adds to his August decision, which denied Alcoa's request to soften the terms of the 2003 ruling, this time eliminating the possibility for TXU to pay a $1,000-a-day fine for not having a new plant complete by the 2007 deadline set forth in the 2003 case. D.M.
Also, dirty diesel emissions are now being targeted in ongoing attempts to clean up Central Texas' air, as the city of Austin and Travis County announced last week the use of a new biodegradable fuel additive shown to significantly reduce nitrogen oxides or NOx emissions, one of the region's main sources of ozone pollution. This effort is part of an Early Action Compact the 10-county Capital Area Council of Governments entered into to avoid federal air-quality violations. Sun Coast Resources will mix the additive, made by California-based Oryxe Energy International, into diesel fuel for use in more than 2,000 municipal diesel vehicles. According to Oryxe's Web site, the company also makes a similar NOx-reducing additive for biodiesel, an even cleaner-burning renewable fuel (with the exception of NOx) that local governments have been shy to test or incorporate into otherwise ambitious renewable energy goals. Air Quality watchdog Scott Johnson noted shortcomings in other Early Action Compact areas such as weak enforcement of summertime heavy-duty diesel idling restrictions and of vapor-recovery violations that occur as fuel is transferred from tanker trucks to underground storage tanks. D.M.