Quote of the week"Make no mistake, this is not going to be over on Thursday. Whether or not the council votes to rescind the site plan, we will continue the fight. This Wal-Mart is not going in our neighborhood." Jason Meeker of Responsible Growth for Northcross
HeadlinesForget "Must-See TV"; today's best TV viewing may be on the city's Channel 6, during what could be a lengthy citizens communication period at the City Council meeting three council members added the Wal-Mart/Northcross Mall controversy to the agenda, so expect fireworks aplenty. See "Point Austin," "Beside the Point," and p.20.
Ramon Hernandez, whose beating by Austin police was taped on patrol-car video cameras last year, has filed a civil rights lawsuit against APD and the officers involved. More on this next week.
Naked CityThe Housing Authority of the City of Austin is trying to ease concerns about plans to demolish 144 units of public housing at Thurmond Heights on Lamar. At two hearings this week on HACA's five-year strategic plan, CEO Jim Hargrove tackled the issue head on, saying it was true that HACA was looking at Thurmond Heights as a site for possible redevelopment and that would likely involve the demolition of existing aging apartment units but that no affordable housing would be lost in the process. HACA is reviewing all its properties for redevelopment, searching for possible new revenue sources. One option is to tear down Thurmond Heights, rebuild 300 moderate-priced apartments, and then either lease or sell off parcels on the frontage road of Lamar to commercial developers. To do that, though, will require an extensive study, the release of the property deed from HUD, and a plan to replace the affordable housing, either on-site, in other parts of the city, or through vouchers. Hargrove urged attendees at this week's public hearings not to panic, saying he won't forget the interests of Austin's lowest-income residents in upcoming decision-making. Kimberly Reeves
Planning has begun, once again, on Republic Square Park. A rather ambitious plan, designed by TBG Partners with a large water wall element by sculptor Jesús Moroles, stalled a couple of years ago when funding to the Texas Commission on the Arts, the project's benefactor, was cut. A new task force began meeting last week; this time the facilitator is provided by the General Services Administration, which has taken an interest in the landscaping around the new federal courthouse, which will open onto Republic Square. Funding for the park remains a bit sketchy, but TBG Partners remains the lead architect on the project. K.R.
In other city-planning news, the Planning Commission declined to support zoning for a point tower on West Seventh Street Tuesday night. The 32-story tower, planned by CLB Partners on land owned by Mike McGinnis at Seventh and Rio Grande, was broadly supported by Downtown boosters but nixed by a couple of neighboring business owners and the Austin Woman's Club, which is located on San Antonio Street. The 400-foot-tall point-tower concept allowed CLB to put in two stories of underground parking and preserve 616 Ranch, which sits on the property. At the final vote, Planning Commission agreed to a less intense zoning that would allow a height of 120 feet. One analysis of the vote was that the staff recommendation and the commissioners clearly split over where high-density towers should begin and end Downtown. Should tall towers be allowed north of Sixth Street, especially in an area of historic homes? Or is Seventh, in this case, acceptable? Council will have the final say, probably at the end of January. K.R.
Like an early Christmas gift, holiday property-tax bills have been delivered to many area homes. Tax collector-assessor Nelda Wells Spears estimates that 235,000 already have hit local mailboxes. The due date for Travis County whether it's you or your escrow company paying is Jan. 31. But those who want a federal deduction for this year must get their taxes paid by Dec. 30, since Dec. 31 is a Sunday. Tax bills can be found online at www.traviscountytax.org, requested by mail, or by calling 854-9473. Call that same number during business hours to get help with a tax bill. You can pay in person, by mail, online, or by telephone. K.R.
Tamara Hoover, the former Austin High art teacher who was forced out of her job after appearing in nude art photos online, will soon be back in the classroom. According to her MySpace blog, she'll be teaching two continuing-education courses this spring at Austin Community College: "Urban Art," which is for students interested in the art movement that includes street art and skate art, and a mixed-media art class, which will include three-dimensional works. Michael May
In other education news, AISD is urging parents to take advantage of the free tutoring available under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. The tutoring, known as Supplemental Educational Services, is only available for certain students those who are eligible to receive free or reduced lunch and who go to a Title 1 school that has been deemed "in need of improvement" by NCLB for two years or more. In Austin, these schools are Dobie and Porter middle schools and Johnston, Lanier, Travis, and Reagan high schools. According to AISD, less than 2% of eligible students are receiving tutoring, which is provided before or after school or on weekends. Parents and students can get more info from their principals and guidance counselors or by visiting www.austinisd.org. M.M.
Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, D-Austin, bid farewell to his 20-year tenure as chair of CAMPO's Transportation Policy Board on Monday night. He warned against the bashing of the board's members in his final speech, saying that some of the more scurrilous accusations were far from true. "When you call people names and make baseless accusations about their character, people stop listening to you," he said. "We're all in this together. We all have to pay tolls." Barrientos is not alone in leaving. Four other board members Frankie Limmer, Jim Powers, Terry Keel, and Karen Sonleitner all served their last meeting. K.R.
On a related note, friends, family, and complete strangers are invited to a big, public farewell party Friday for Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos. Empty pockets aren't a problem, but bring cash if you want food and drink. Barrientos, who represented Austin in both the House and Senate for three decades, is retiring at the end of the year. Tejano music the senator's favorite is on tap, with Little Joe y la Familia and Ruben Ramos providing it. Festivities begin with a 5:30pm reception at the Palmer Events Center, 900 Barton Springs Rd. Music kicks off at 8:30pm; last dance 11:30pm. Amy Smith
Those who have comments on the region's toll road plans or questions about the recent mobility study of toll roads can attend a meeting Thursday at the Round Rock Main Library, 216 E. Main, in Round Rock. It runs from 4 to 9pm, with two identical two-hour information sessions on the region's upcoming three-year Transportation Improvement Program. (Written comments on the plan will be taken by mail, fax, or e-mail until Jan. 26.) The toll roads either will or will not be part of that plan when CAMPO's Transportation Policy Board votes in February. Given the expected attendance, CAMPO has moved its January and February meetings to the Commons Center, UT's J.J. Pickle Research Campus, 10100 Burnet Rd. The LBJ Library Auditorium at UT, typically used for CAMPO's larger gatherings, is under renovation. K.R.
In anticipation that City Council will enact an ordinance to ban dog chaining or tethering in January, Chain Free Austin, the volunteer group that proposed such a measure in August, has launched a fencing assistance fund drive to help low-income families buy fence materials. The proposed ban born out of USDA and vet-backed claims that chaining is cruel to dogs and dangerous for passersby (especially children) is being reviewed by city staff, will go before the Animal Advisory Commission Dec. 19, and should appear on City Council's agenda by early 2007. Many folks may choose to bring their dog inside and exercise it as needed, if the ban passes, according to Chain Free, but if outdoor confinement is the only option, residents could choose a fenced enclosure with shelter. Dorinda Pulliam, director of the Town Lake Animal Shelter, who is reviewing the ordinance for the city, explained how a few kinks involving minimum enclosure size are being worked out to ensure that yardless people aren't forced to give up pets. Outdoor kenneling and indoor crating are OK, Pulliam said, as long as the dog gets out when its owner gets home. Find more, see www.chainfreeaustin.org. Daniel Mottola
Austin Yellow Bike Project's Open House and Bicycle Drive is Saturday, Dec. 16, from 1 to 5pm. Formed in 1997 after branching off from the local version of national group Bikes Not Bombs, the all-volunteer YBP hopes to acquaint the community with its main shop, at 2013 E. 51st, where the famous yellow bikes are assembled from salvage parts before being released for free throughout Austin and more importantly where the group's fully stocked bike-repair workshop is open to the public for free six nights a week. On a solemn note, though, the open house is also a networking opportunity for YBP's future, since the 51st Street shop, a former Austin Fire Department warehouse donated by the city, will be demolished in late 2007 to make room for one of the Mueller redevelopment's new roads. Bicycle and parts donations will be accepted at the event. For more, see www.austinyellowbike.org. D.M.
beyond city limitsVoters in Congressional District 23 added yet another nail in Tom DeLay's coffin on Tuesday Democrat Ciro Rodriguez won the run-off in the special election for that seat, ousting incumbent Henry Bonilla with 54% of the vote. The win was sweet revenge for Rodriguez, who represented CD 28 from 1997 to 2005 but got pushed out of office by DeLay's 2003 re-redistricting scheme. DeLay, the disgraced former House majority leader, redrew CD 23's boundaries in 2003 specifically to protect Bonilla, but the U.S. Supreme Court ruled this summer that the move violated the voting rights of Hispanics in Southwest Texas, redrew the boundaries again and ordered a special election. Rodriguez suddenly found that he was a resident of the San Antonio-to-El Paso CD 23 and entered the race, giving him a chance not only to head back to Washington but also to stick it to both of the men who pushed him out in the first place. This brings the Dem total in the House to 233. Lee Nichols
In a news conference on Capitol Hill Tuesday, Rep. George Miller, the incoming chair of the Committee on Education and Workforce, promised a swift reauthorization of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, dashing any hopes that Democrats would be tossing out President George W. Bush's high-profile school-accountability system. NCLB was modeled on, and frequently has conflicted with, Texas' own school-accountability system. Miller also promised that Dems would cut the interest rate on college loans in half to make college affordable for middle-class students. K.R.
Just when you think Rick Perry is really trying hard to change his polarizing ways, he appoints a controversial gay-baiting preacher to his 2007 Texas Inaugural Committee. Aren't inaugurations supposed to be festive? Not with a buzz kill like Dwight McKissic on the team. The Arlington minister joins a who's who of country-club Republicans on the committee, chaired by Houston socialite Mica Mosbacher and co-chaired by UT System Board Chair James Huffines and Dallas banker Jody Grant. McKissic, Perry's pick, is always a big hit at right-wing hate rallies, but you have to wonder what Perry was thinking when he tapped the angry rev to help plan the Jan. 16 event around the theme "Texas: Imagine the Possibilities." With McKissic on board, we imagine anything is possible. The last time Perry and the preacher shared a stage together, McKissic created an ugly uproar by suggesting that gays and gamblers were to blame for Katrina's deadly destruction in New Orleans. Afterward, a Perry spokesman said the governor didn't agree with the sentiment but that he can't go around muzzling every idiot with whom he shares a stage. No, he just appoints him to his inauguration committee. A.S.
In other gubernatorial personnel news, Perry has promoted Press Secretary Kathy Walt to special assistant for communications, while Robert Black Perry's officious spokesman during this year's election rout advances to chief talker for the governor's office and speechwriter Ted Royer will become deputy press secretary. In her new job, Walt will help direct the Governor's Competitive Council, the latest of Perry's economic development initiatives. The new council, still in its formation stages, will combine the wisdom of private industries and the education communities in an effort to fatten Texas' economic opportunities. And just think what it might do for Perry's political career as a potential VP nominee. To be sure, Walt will have her work cut out for her. Her new duties will also require her to cajole state agencies into doing their part to bang the drum in support of Perry's public-policy initiatives, no matter how costly or half-baked some of them might be. In other staff changes, Luis Saenz, the strategic brains behind Perry's re-election campaign, will start the new year as a lobbyist, the Statesman reports. A.S.
Two-thirds of Texans oppose the construction of new proposed coal-fired power plants, with 47% strongly opposing, while an overwhelming 81% reject Gov. Perry's executive order to fast-track the plants' permits, according to a survey of 600 randomly selected Texans released Dec. 6 by the Environmental Integrity Project. The survey, conducted by Opinion Research Corporation, found that only 22% of Republicans favored Perry's fast-tracking tactics. While 82% voiced concern about the health risks associated with the plants, 47% said they're "not aware at all" of Gov. Perry's fast-track orders. And 74% would prefer to see major conservation efforts undertaken to offset a significant portion of the electricity that's required from the new coal plants, according to the study. "Texans do not want to see the state shortchange the deliberate review that should take place to determine what would be very serious environmental and health downsides of these needlessly dirty power sources," said EIP counsel Ilan Levin. D.M.
On a related note, if you still haven't seen An Inconvenient Truth, former VP Al Gore's documentary on the global-warming crisis, there will be numerous watching parties nationwide on Saturday, Dec. 16, sponsored by AlGore.com and MoveOn.org, including several here in Austin. To find one near you, go to www.moveon.org/event/events/index.html?action_id=69, and enter your ZIP code. L.N.
The number of death sentences handed down in state courts is down 65% over the last 10 years from 40 in 1996 to only 15 in 2005 in keeping with a nationwide decline that saw 125 death sentences handed down last year from an average of about 300 a decade ago, according to the Texas Office of Court Administration. Notably, the statewide decline included a significant drop in Harris Co. the country's leader in handing out, and carrying out, death as punishment where 16 death sentences were handed out in 1996, and just three were delivered last year. The reduction there comes as no surprise to the folks at the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, which suspects problems with the Houston PD crime lab, combined with the serious questions about wrongful conviction and execution, may have impacted even seemingly death-happy Houston. Jordan Smith
The official city of Taylor Web site describes the Williamson County town as a "vibrant, growing community of about 15,000 residents poised for retail, commercial, and residential growth." It just so happens that one of its fastest-growing residential facilities is the T. Don Hutto Residential Facility, owned and operated by Corrections Corporation of America, a for-profit private prison company. The jail is the second in the nation to imprison or, in the preferred vernacular when referring to noncitizen prisoners, detain entire families until they are granted asylum, secure a bond for their release, or are deported. A new group, Texans United for Families, has organized an open vigil to attract public attention to what is becoming one of Texas' best-kept secrets. They'll gather in Austin at 9:45am on Saturday at the ACLU office, 1210 Rosewood, to form a caravan to the facility. Diana Welch