Headlines and happenings from Austin and beyond
"I don't think that matters one twit [sic]. We'll still have 100% of the authority." Gov. Rick Perry on bipartisanship
Quote of the Week
At press time, the Chronicle obtained an investigative report from the Office of the City Auditor regarding Water Treatment Plant No. 4's controversial site-selection in the Cortaña tract of Balcones Canyonlands Preserve. Among other things, the whistle-blower-fueled report concludes a second site within Cortaña met the criteria for site consideration but wasn't included. For more, see "Auditor's Report: Staff misled city board on water plant site."
OK friends, this is it. You have until 7pm Friday to vote early; if not, then Tuesday, Nov. 7 (that would be Election Day), is your very last chance. If you're just waking up from Halloween revelry, check out the Chronicle Endorsements (p.8 or online), and make your decisions down at the polls. And check out our Election Blog at austinchronicle.com/election.
City Council meets today (Thursday), with a generally light agenda but possible fireworks on traffic-light cameras and zoning cases; see "Beside the Point." Of perhaps more permanentÊimport, the Water Conservation Task Force meets Friday to hear staff recommendations on long-term solutions, 2:30pm at City Hall, with both invited testimony and citizen communication.
The U.S. military death toll for October was 103, the highest since January 2005 (107), bringing the overall total to 2,816. Iraqi civilian deaths have reportedly exceeded 600,000, according to a survey report by Johns Hopkins University researchers published in the medical magazineÊThe Lancet.
Downtown development deal junkies following the negotiations over Las Manitas and Escuelita del Alma won't want to miss the rather arrogant letter just lobbed back to Council Members Brewster McCracken, Mike Martinez, and Lee Leffingwell by developer White Lodging Services. The council members had sent a letter requesting that White Lodging's client, the Marriott, propose a revised development plan for the 200 block of Congress by Oct. 31. In response, CEO Bruce White offers not a single change in his company's development plan. Instead, the letter complains about how unreasonable the tenants have been in rejecting his company's generous offers of financial assistance to get the hell out of the way. The letter further states that the tenants' wish is "to remain at our current location on a permanent basis." White says, "Our opinion is that a successful convention hotel cannot be built on the block between Second and Third streets on Congress if the existing buildings have to remain." The only supporting facts he offers are that the older buildings: 1) are midblock (duh) and 2) do not meet current code. Much of White's letter is spent grumbling that his company's development ought to get the same variances by right as those given to the Hilton convention hotel, without having to offer up any particular public benefits. Muscle-flexing about all the tax revenue and jobs the hotel project could drive into Austin is plentiful. Will the politicos fold? Stay tuned. Download the full letter here (2MB PDF). Katherine Gregor
The city is stepping up enforcement of the smoking ordinance. The Austin/Travis Co. Health and Human Services Department has announced that as of Nov. 1, the department in conjunction with APD will start issuing citations to those who smoke in nonsmoking establishments. This will be in addition to fining establishments that allow smoking. Those found in violation could face fines of up to $500. To report a violation of the ordinance or to ask questions about it, contact HHS' Environmental and Consumer Health Unit at 972-5600 or email@example.com. Kimberly Reeves
After months of speculation and waiting, Austin Police Association President Mike Sheffield announced publicly that he will retire in December from his role as police union boss and as an APD detective. Sheffield has been with the department for 28 years and has led the union for eight, a tenure that has seen the nearly 1,400-member police association become a cohesive and powerful group sometimes to the chagrin of City Hall, notably during employment-contract-bargaining sessions when the city often appeared decidedly less savvy than union leaders. Indeed, during Sheffield's tenure Austin police rose to become one of the highest paid police forces in the country. Sheffield's staunch support for his troops also earned him the ire of some who suggested that he displayed a lack of concern for community relations, especially in the aftermath of various high-profile police use-of-force cases, such as the police-shooting deaths of Jesse Lee Owens and Daniel Rocha. Sheffield will be taking a job with the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas, helping police agencies across the state during employment-contract bargaining. Eleven-year department veteran Jim Beck, who has served as union secretary and vice-president, will take over as APA president and serve out the remainder of Sheffield's term. Jordan Smith
Getting grilled on global warming, Mayor Will Wynn met Monday with a group of about 25 citizens and local green leaders as part of the statewide Cool Cities campaign. The discussion focused squarely on how Austin would address the 18 pulverized coal power plants planned for Texas that threaten to double the state's already nation-leading greenhouse gas emissions. Though the mayor says the city will intensify its ongoing work with the 10-county Capital Area Council of Governments to advocate cleaner alternatives, he admitted that the city of Austin (which operates its own coal power plant through Austin Energy) has been silent on the matter, unlike the cities of Houston, Dallas, and even Arlington, which have opposed new coal burners. Wynn cited a years-old "gentleman's agreement" that spared Austin from utility deregulation but precludes the city from meddling in competitive utilities' permitting business, for fear of having "competition injected" into Austin's market by an oft-Austin-bashing Legislature. Cool Climate later advocated a city inventory of its global-warming emissions and public education on energy efficiency. In attendance was environmental advocate Karen Hadden, who at press time was in the eighth day of her hunger strike (www.stopthecoalplant.org), along with two others statewide, calling for a reversal of Gov. Perry's executive order fast-tracking the plants' permits. Daniel Mottola
In related news, Travis Co. commissioners agreed Tuesday to join Texas Cities for Clean Air a coalition formed by Dallas Mayor Laura Miller to model the impact of fast-tracked coal-fired power plants but Commissioner Gerald Daugherty wanted to make it clear he had not landed on a conclusion as to whether the plants will be good or bad for Austin's air quality. Miller has argued that Texas cities need more modeling. Daugherty said he'll draw his conclusions about the value of the plants from those results. Commissioner Karen Sonleitner said the county, no matter the outcome, needs to be at the table in case the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality sends the plant permits to mediation. The first permit hearings are in three weeks. K.R.
Lee Leffingwell's water-conservation task force recently completed "phase one" of its conservation plan. This section is largely concerned with indoor strategies "mainly bathrooms," Leffingwell said. The group voted Friday to require submeters in post-2003 apartments already piped for them. While this may mean the end of "free water" in apartment rentals, Leffingwell called it an effective conservation measure, noting "studies show you use 15 percent more water if you aren't paying for it." The proposals also include a water-saving retrofit on indoor appliances for all houses sold; the idea is to make it "part of the closing process, like a lead paint addendum," he said. Also, car-wash rules will be set, including a 40-gallon wash limit. The task force created with the goal of saving 10 million gallons in 10 years meets Friday, Nov. 3, to consider outdoor strategies, including irrigation; developing a conservation strategy for the water utility comes next. Wells Dunbar
The AISD board of trustees will appoint a replacement for District 2 trustee Rudy Montoya, who has announced he will resign on Nov. 13. The board could have held a midterm election, but that would have required a volunteer trustee to go through two election campaigns within a year and a half. Still, board President Mark Williams hopes that members of the community will help the board pick the right person. "Their input will be critical," he said, "as we strive to continue the Austin school district's momentum." The district will hold a public forum to discuss the appointment Thursday, Nov. 2, at the Martin Middle School library. You can also provide input on the district's Web site: www.austinisd.org. The board will approve the appointment process at their next meeting, Monday, Nov. 6. Michael May
In other education news, tuition for UT-Austin students increased almost 10% this year and is expected to rise again next year. The increases are largely due to a decrease in public dollars, a trend that's evident across the country. A report by the College Board found that the cost of a college degree has increased by around 35% since 2001. And, according to a report by the National Association of State Public Interest Research Groups, the increases are prohibiting graduates from pursuing public-service jobs such as teaching and social work. For instance, the NASP report found that 23% of state-college graduates would not be able to pay off their debt on a starting teacher salary. The subject has become a hot campaign topic here in Texas. Gov. Rick Perry signed a bill allowing colleges and universities to set their own tuition and also approved cuts in state-sponsored college scholarships. Chris Bell and Kinky Friedman both promise to give the power to set tuition rates back to the Legislature.Ê M.M.
The Center for Public Policy Priorities is collecting the stories of Texas residents who have had trouble getting Medicaid as a result of the new federal requirement that all U.S. citizens prove their citizenship status before enrolling in the program. CPPP also wants to hear from people having trouble getting the necessary documents to prove they are U.S. citizens. Anne Dunkelberg, who's heading up the project, says its main goals are to collect data on the impact of the new policy, to identify and promote best practices, and to analyze what (if anything) has happened to program access. For more on this project, see www.cppp.org/research.php?aid=572; for background info on the new requirement, see www.cppp.org/research.php?aid=536. Cheryl Smith
The Austin Area Urban League has been awarded a huge chunk of change to train and employ Katrina evacuees and ex-offenders a $640,000, two-year Gulf Coast Employment Initiative grant through the Department of Labor, according to an AAUL press release. The initiative is "designed specifically to serve Austin's at-risk youth (18-24 years) displaced by Hurricane Katrina," according to the release. "The ultimate goal is to increase the opportunities for educational attainment and enhanced employability for high-risk youths through intensive case management, GED training, personal-development classes, computer training, and community-service projects." C.S.
In other evacuee-related news, local affordable-housing nonprofit Foundation Communities runs community tax centers, which will be helping hurricane evacuees through Nov. 16 with past-due taxes, among other related financial matters. Evacuees "can still claim refunds due to them from 2003, 2004, and 2005," says tax-center Program Director Elizabeth Colvin, and the Louisiana Sales Tax Refund makes it possible for evacuees to "get a refund of the sales tax they paid on every item in their home, regardless of when the item was purchased or its condition prior to the hurricane." To set up an appointment, call 447-2026 x35, x11, or x36. In related news, IRS Commissioner Mark Everson said on Oct. 27 that the agency "will put off until after the new year enforcement action against people in Hurricane Katrina-hit areas who are late in paying their income taxes," the Associated Press reports. Oct. 16 was the deadline to file 2005 tax returns. C.S.
The legal wrangling over who should retain control over the animals at the 75-acre Primarily Primates sanctuary in Bexar Co. continued this week in the courtroom of Travis Co. Probate Judge Guy Herman. During an all-day hearing Oct. 27, court-appointed receiver Lee Theisen-Watt testified that a variety of animals including several primates transferred to the facility early this year from Ohio State University have been kept in unsanitary conditions without sufficient stimulation or nutrition. Herman appointed Theisen-Watt to take over the running of the facility in mid-October, after finding enough evidence of potential financial mismanagement and animal cruelty to grant a temporary restraining order sought by the Texas attorney general. The attorney general's office is now asking Herman to extend that order by granting a temporary injunction; because the sanctuary is a public charity, the attorney general's office argues, it should remain under state control, via Theisen-Watt, until the whole matter goes to trial. Herman is expected to rule on the matter on Nov. 7. J.S.
In other animal news, with a goal of 350,000 pet adoptions by Jan. 2, 2007, the Iams Home 4 the Holidays Pet Adoption Drive, the largest effort to find homes for orphaned animals in history, is set to get under way Monday, Nov. 6. The drive has placed more than a million pets since it began in 1999 and has expanded from 14 participating animal shelters and rescue groups to 1,941 last year. The nine area participating organizations are the Austin Humane Society, Austin Siamese Rescue, Giant Paw Rescue in Lakeway, Cedar Forest Cat Ranch, Texas Great Pyrenees Rescue, Pflugerville's Lucky Mutts Rescue, Lago Vista PAWS, the Humane Society of Williamson County, and Thundering Paws Animal Sanctuary of Dripping Springs. For more, see www.home4theholidays.com. D.M.
The shit has hit the fan in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, where after five months of efforts by a combination of striking teachers, indigenous groups, students, and leftists to have Gov. Ulises Ruiz ousted from power, federal police entered the state Sunday, leading to clashes between thousands of protesters and law enforcement. On Monday, Mexico's federal congress urged Ruiz to step down by passing a nonbinding resolution, and Subcomandante Marcos, head of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, as well as others, called upon demonstrators to keep protesting. In the U.S., demonstrators rallied at several Mexican consulates. At least 45 people gathered in Austin at the consulate on Brazos Street to remember those who have been killed throughout the conflict, to call on Ruiz to resign, and to protest President Vicente Fox's decision to bring federal police into Oaxaca. A group of local activists erected a tent in front of the consulate Tuesday night, intending to stay there until Oaxaca's federal occupation situation is peacefully resolved or Ruiz resigns, said Diego Villarreal, one of the organizers. So far, Ruiz has refused to step down. He has some local support, however, as indicated Tuesday when, according to the Associated Press, "Several thousand residents marched in support of Ruiz in a park just blocks from the Zocalo, while others expressed support for police." Although some teachers have agreed to return to work, according to the AP, "only about 4,000 of the state's 13,000 schools had opened as of Tuesday." For continuing coverage, see news.yahoo.com/fc/World/Mexico and www.narconews.com; for previous coverage, see "A Letter to Mexico," Oct. 27, 2006. C.S.
Beyond City Limits
Polygamist prophet Warren Jeffs, the 50-year-old leader of the breakaway Mormon sect the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, got word last week that Arizona officials have until Dec. 26 to seek his extradition from Utah to face felony charges related to his arranging marriages between married men and teen girls. Jeffs was arrested in August outside Las Vegas after being on the lam for more than a year, fleeing felony charges in Arizona and Utah along with a federal charge of unlawful flight to avoid prosecution. Jeffs waived extradition to Utah, where he is incarcerated in the Purgatory Correctional Facility awaiting trial on the most serious of the charges against him, a first-degree felony count of "rape as accomplice," which is punishable by up to life in prison. During a video hearing Oct. 25, Utah Judge James Shumate told a green-and-white-striped wearin' Jeffs that while he presumes "Arizona still wants you," the state would have to wait "until this matter with Utah is over" for its turn to try the prophet. A hearing on the Utah charges is scheduled for Nov. 21. J.S.
The Environmental Protection Agency gave a big 10-4 to a group of enviro-conscious trucking companies and shippers this week. The freight-industry companies were recognized for their participation in the EPA's SmartWay Transport program, a voluntary partnership providing technical and financial assistance, advocating innovations such as low, rolling-resistance tires and exhaust after-treatment devices that can cut fuel use by up to 15%, as well as bolt-on technologies that provide climate control for sleeper cabs while minimizing or eliminating the common practice of idling a big rig's engine. By 2012, SmartWay aims to cut 18-wheeler carbon dioxide emissions in half and reduce nitrogen oxide emissions by up to 200,000 tons per year at the same time saving up to 150 million barrels of oil.ÊSmartWay also aims to increase the efficiency and use of rail and intermodal freight operations. One notable, almost-local honoree in the large, for-hire carrier category was the private fleet of San Antonio-based grocer HEB. For more, see www.epa.gov/smartway. Over and out. D.M.