Naked City

Activist groups including CodePink-Austin, Veterans for Peace, Austin Against War, and Women in Black held a silent funeral procession Saturday across the Ann Richards (Congress Avenue) Bridge to mourn the nearly 3,000 Americans killed in the Iraq war, as well as the Iraqis killed – estimates of the latter range anywhere from 50,000 to half a million. (See <a href=http://www.iraqbodycount.org target=blank><b>www.iraqbodycount.org</b></a> or  for attempts at counting civilian deaths.)
Activist groups including CodePink-Austin, Veterans for Peace, Austin Against War, and Women in Black held a silent funeral procession Saturday across the Ann Richards (Congress Avenue) Bridge to mourn the nearly 3,000 Americans killed in the Iraq war, as well as the Iraqis killed – estimates of the latter range anywhere from 50,000 to half a million. (See www.iraqbodycount.org or for attempts at counting civilian deaths.)


Quote of the Week

"The notice to the neighbors needs to let them know that something more than a site plan has been filed. It needs to be something like, 'All hell is about to break loose, so let's get ready.'" – City Council Member Brewster McCracken, on the way Northcross Mall neighbors were alerted to the incoming Wal-Mart


Headlines

• All hell has broken loose in the Northcross Mall area in the past week: Neighbors organized as Responsible Growth for Northcross are furious about plans to replace the aging mall with a Wal-Mart. See "Northcross Neighbors to Wal-Mart: You don't want us as enemies."

4The Democrats have a chance to further pad their lead in Congress if former District 28 Rep. Ciro Rodriguez can oust Republican incumbent Henry Bonilla from the District 23 seat in a run-off on Tuesday. For coverage, see our news blog, the Chronic, austinchronicle.com/chronic.

• Our CNN Breaking News e-mail alert informed us Wednesday morning that the Iraq Study Group has declared that President Bush's policy in Iraq "is not working." Um … that's "breaking news"?


Naked City

On Saturday, supporters of Escuelita del Alma, a downtown childcare center, held a fundraiser to benefit the school's relocation project. Escuelita is one of several businesses on the east side of the 200 block of Congress Avenue threatened by plans for a new Marriot hotel to be built on the site (regular readers might be more familiar with Las Manitas Cafe as the center of this controversy, which set in motion calls to protect iconic Austin businesses). Handmade gifts and artworks were sold on the sidewalk of that block, and performers - including (l-r) Alma Flores-Pérez, age 10, Daniela Domingues, age 11, and William Dominguez, age 9 - entertained passersby. For more, see the <a href=/gyrobase/Issue/story?oid=oid%3A426593>results of our Icon or Eyesore contest</a>.
On Saturday, supporters of Escuelita del Alma, a downtown childcare center, held a fundraiser to benefit the school's relocation project. Escuelita is one of several businesses on the east side of the 200 block of Congress Avenue threatened by plans for a new Marriot hotel to be built on the site (regular readers might be more familiar with Las Manitas Cafe as the center of this controversy, which set in motion calls to protect "iconic" Austin businesses). Handmade gifts and artworks were sold on the sidewalk of that block, and performers - including (l-r) Alma Flores-Pérez, age 10, Daniela Domingues, age 11, and William Dominguez, age 9 - entertained passersby. For more, see the results of our "Icon or Eyesore" contest. (photo by Jana Birchum)

• Last week a letter to City Council from several Austin environmental leaders urged council to change course on building Water Treatment Plant 4 at its proposed location inside the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve. "We ask that you remove yourself from the box the Utility has unnecessarily put the City in of building in either the sensitive Bull Creek watershed or in the [BCP]," the letter reads. "The criteria used by staff and consultants for the site selection were arbitrarily narrow and eliminated at least one potential site out of hand," they say, referring to findings that a second site in the Cortaña tract met criteria for consideration but was not fully vetted. The letter goes on to say that WTP 4 is predicated on "old technology requiring more land," rendering the city's size requirements artificially inflated, and that slope/grade requirements and a restriction against building on developed properties also kept the number of potentially viable sites low. "We ask that you broaden the scope of the site selection process," they ask. Signers include Bill Bunch, Leslie Pool, Karin Ascot, Phil Moncada, Laura Morrison, and others. See the letter at austinchronicle.com/chronic. – Wells Dunbar

• Also concerning the new water treatment plant, city officials, in hopes of getting Travis Co. to call another hearing on the site, are showering county officials with additional paperwork to prove that the city's proposed Cortaña site is far superior to the permitted site at the headwaters of Bull Creek, according to online newsletter In Fact Daily. A split county court dug in its heels at a recent hearing on the issue – unconvinced that the city had thoroughly reviewed every option – but city officials, including former Environmental Board chair-turned-Council Member Lee Leffingwell, would like to see a change of heart. "If the county were to decide there is sufficient new information, they could decide to have another Chapter 26 hearing," Leffingwell told In Fact Daily. "We're willing to evaluate the methodology that we used, and we're willing to provide backup information on sites that were rejected." Just to prove the issue is not dead, city officials were scheduled to take members of the Environmental Board and reporters to view the Cortaña site on Wednesday. – Kimberly Reeves

• The Austin Water Utility's bond rating has been upgraded by both Moody's Investor Services and Standard & Poor's. The upgraded rating will hopefully allow the utility to issue future debt at a lower rate, saving ratepayers money on interest over time. – W.D.

Landfills – specifically, a memorandum of understanding with landfill operator Browning-Ferris Industries are back on the agenda at Travis Co. commissioners court Tuesday, Dec. 12. This agreement has stirred the anger of local residents who worry about the potential height of the landfill, but court members see it as a way to get BFI out of the neighborhood permanently. Under the agreement, BFI will vacate the site in 2015, whether they have a new site or not. County Judge Sam Biscoe says the key is that the landowner, as well as BFI, will have to sign the agreement. That means the landowner won't be able to cut any deals to lease the land to BFI's even more popular next-door neighbor, Waste Management. BFI wants the deal signed before Commissioner Karen Sonleitner leaves the court at year's end. Expect to see plenty of landfill opponents spreading less than holiday cheer at next week's meeting. – K.R.

• In other county news, the commissioners are rushing to get four public-private road deals through the court by the end of the year, meeting the requirements of the bonds passed by voters back in 2005. County commissioners considered a public-private deal on portions of Decker Lane near State Highway 130 last week. Next week it will be portions of Wells Branch Parkway, Braker Lane, and Slaughter Lane. What's missing for the discussion, however, is the city's commitment in writing to a number of the public-private deals. County officials have verbal assurance that the city will participate in some of the deals but nothing in writing. In the case of Decker Lane, inside the city's near-term annexation area, the road's construction would be divided into thirds. If the city were to back out of the deal, the county also would likely cancel its end of the contract. – K.R.

• Local biodiesel start-up Austin Biofuels was acquired this week by Houston-based Safe Renewables Corporation for an undisclosed sum. ABF's sales and marketing success resulted in Austin being recognized last year as having the largest concentration of public biodiesel pumps in the nation. Jeff Plowman, ABF's co-founder, said the "opportunities for small independents are getting slimmer and slimmer. … This is the fuel business after all." He characterized the move as a way for ABF to survive and grow. Safe Renewables, which produces biodiesel in Conroe, has been ABF's primary supplier for more than a year. Plowman touted Safe's consistent fuel quality and also the input they've given ABF in selecting predominantly Texas-grown fuel crops. Co-founders Kurt Lyell and Robby Plenge will join Plowman on Safe's staff. Both companies described the merger as a way to vertically integrate and get closer to the end user. Plowman says ABF's Austin presence won't change, and he expects to add a North Austin pump soon, as well as multiple new 99% biodiesel (B99) pumps next year. Since ABF started in 2003, its annual Austin sales have grown from 6,000 gallons to about 2 million gallons. – Daniel Mottola

• Austin state Sen.-elect Kirk Watson ended up with the short stick last week when it came time to determine seniority among the Senate's incoming freshman class of four. He'll rank No. 31 in the 31-member Senate when he is sworn into office next month, replacing senior retiring Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos. In the biannual ritual of drawing numbers from a hat to determine one's worth, so to speak, Watson reached in and grabbed No. 4. This means he'll be the last one to choose his office and his desk on the Senate floor, after the No. 3 freshman, radio celebrity Dan Patrick, R-Houston, has picked through the leftovers. There are actually five freshman senators in the 2007 class, but Sen. Carlos Uresti, a San Antonio Democrat, has already been sworn into office. On the House side, Valinda Bolton, D-Austin, fared better, picking the No. 8 spot among the 22-member freshman class. – Amy Smith

• Free-market booster Michael Quinn Sullivan, the voice behind the voice of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, is leaving his VP post to lead a new organization with a similar low-to-no taxes mindset. The start-up, Texans for Fiscal Responsibility, seeks to divert the state's $15 billion surplus into the hands of taxpayers and has created a Web site and blog (www.empowertexans.com) to further its mission. For more details about the new group, get thee to the reception TPPF is hosting for Sullivan. The festivities are set for 5pm Friday, Dec. 8, at TPPF's headquarters, 900 Congress. – A.S.

• The Austin Independent School District will host the seventh African American Men and Boys Monthly Conference this month. The event will offer 15 workshops for local African-American youth on subjects ranging from the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills test to legal advice to health and human services. This month's conference focuses on the seven principles of Kwanzaa: unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose/personal goals, creativity, and faith. The conference will be at Dobie Middle School on Dec. 16 from 10am to 2pm. For more information, call 585-6696. – Michael May


Beyond City Limits

• Round Rock student protester Jennifer Avilez was found guilty on Dec. 2 of violating curfew; her attorneys are considering an appeal. Avilez was charged with violating the youth curfew ordinance when she participated in a march on the Texas Capitol protesting proposed immigration policy on March 31. Avilez believes she did nothing wrong. "I know that free speech is not a crime," she said. The defense argued that though the ordinance prohibits minors from being in a public place during school hours, one exception allows minors to exercise First Amendment rights, and another permits students to be in a public place with parental consent, both of which constitute an "absolute defense" in Avilez's case, according to attorney Edmond "Skip" Davis. The jury disagreed, obviously, but not without a battle. "The jury struggled with the verdict until 10am," Davis said, adding the verdict was rendered with only "narrow access to critical contextual evidence" – that is, that Avilez had her mother's permission to march. Ernest Saadiq Morris, representing the Texas Fair Defense Project, believes the case should have been dismissed. "We will not allow an intelligent, socially aware 16-year-old to be made a scapegoat for her strong political beliefs," Morris said, heralding the possible appeal. Round Rock Police issued 204 citations for violating the curfew, disrupting class, or both. The first student protester to be tried, Irvin DeLuna, 15, was acquitted on Nov. 3. "We have been refraining from comment on any of the cases just because we have so many trials, about 40, yet to come," said Will Hampton, communications director for the city of Round Rock. – Patricia J. Ruland

• The Texas Clean Air Cities Coalition, an organization spearheaded by Dallas Mayor Laura Miller to address the slew of new coal-burning power plants planned statewide, is picking up steam and fighting for the right to testify at permitting hearings for the plants, which began last week. The coalition, now with 24 city and county government members, including Dallas, Houston, El Paso, Waco, and recently Travis County, (but not Austin), has manifold goals, according to Miller, including: requiring the best and cleanest technologies for the plants, a significant cleanup of existing coal plants (which top national charts for smog and mercury pollution), rectifying the TCEQ's "painfully flawed" permitting process so that it considers the plants' cumulative – rather than individual – impact, and to get that permitting process in sync with multimillion-dollar State Implementation Plan air-quality improvement efforts meant to rescue Texas' big cities from federal air-quality violation. Though the coalition indirectly represents about 6.4 million Texans (plus several state community and environmental groups), it's struggling for the right to file comments, present evidence, and call expert witnesses at the hearings – not to mention fighting off significant utility industry opposition. The State Office of Administrative Hearings in Austin will determine Dec. 14 what groups will have standing in the coal cases, among other hot coal-related issues. – D.M.

• On Wednesday, Nov. 29, a federal judge in the District of Columbia granted "a request for a preliminary injunction against the Federal Emergency Management Agency to prevent the agency from terminating housing benefits for hurricane evacuees without first adequately explaining its decisions," according to a press release from Public Citizen, which made the request along with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid and the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now. FEMA was ordered to "restore short-term housing assistance to all evacuees whom FEMA found ineligible since Aug. 31, 2006, until they receive adequate explanation for the decision and time to appeal," the release reads. "FEMA was also required to pay the short-term housing assistance benefits that evacuees would have received between Sept. 1 and Nov. 30." FEMA issued a statement in response to the ruling: "Because FEMA believes some applicants may have been unaware of either the appeal process or the applicability of the initial ineligibility determination, the Agency sent out follow-up letters which explained the process. FEMA then provided those applicants an additional 60 days in which to appeal and listed the requirements for additional assistance. … FEMA is considering the court's order in consultation with the Department of Justice, determining how the agency will proceed." For more on the lawsuit, see www.citizen.org/pressroom/release.cfm?ID=2323; FEMA's full response is at www.fema.gov/news/newsrelease.fema?id=31788. – Cheryl Smith

• Residents throughout the U.S. heaved a sigh of relief last week. The 2006 Atlantic hurricane season officially ended Nov. 30 with the country spared the grief of any major disasters, as not a single hurricane spanked the U.S. (That is, if you don't count Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's visit to New York in September, when he called President Bush "the devil" during a United Nations address.) The National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration had predicted a 75% chance of an "above-normal" season this year – "a seasonal total of 12-15 named storms, with 7-9 becoming hurricanes, and 3-4 becoming major hurricanes." Instead, the six-month season ended with nine tropical storms, five of which became hurricanes. – C.S.

• According to statistics released Nov. 30 by the U.S. Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Statistics, one in 32 American adults can be counted as part of the nation's criminal-justice population. That is, 7 million U.S. adults are now "on paper," either in prison or jail or on parole or probation. According to the BJS annual report, as of Dec. 31, 2005, 2.2 million adults were behind bars – up 2.7% from 2004 – 4 million were on probation, and nearly 800,000 were on parole. And, as it turns out, the steady growth of the prison population is in large part caused by an increase in drug-offense convictions. Inmates convicted of drug offenses in federal court accounted for 49% of the total growth in the prison population since 1995 – including more than 250,000 drug offenders locked up in state prisons. (Indeed, in October, FBI statistics revealed that nearly 800,000 people were arrested last year just for pot-related charges.) And, as the prison population continues to grow, it should come as no surprise that at the end of 2005, state prisons were operating at up to 14% above capacity, while federal prisons were at 34% above capacity. For the entire report, go to www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/abstract/p05.htm. – Jordan Smith

• When leaders of other countries consider the same-sex marriage issue, they first ask themselves, what would America do? And then they do the opposite. At least it seems that way. Consider these recent developments: Two days after seven U.S. states approved constitutional bans on gay marriage, the legislative assembly in Mexico City, where the Catholic Church is king, voted 43-17 to allow civil unions between gay and lesbian couples. The new law, which goes into effect early next year, extends certain legal entitlements to same-sex couples, such as inheritance, property rights, and health benefits. November was clearly the month for gay rights advances of global proportions. Last month, South Africa became the fifth country to allow gay couples to marry, while the top court in Israel ruled that the country must legally recognize same-sex couples who marry abroad. The U.S. elections did provide one ray of hope on the marriage issue. Arizona became the first state in the nation to reject a proposed constitutional measure outlawing same-sex marriage. You could say that voters in the Grand Canyon State honored their late Sen. Barry Goldwater by following through with his suggestion that the right-wing Rev. Jerry Falwell (and his ilk) needed "a swift kick in the ass." – A.S.

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