Headlines and happenings from Austin and beyond
"This man knows how to lead, and he did and the country is better off for it." President Bush, speaking of outgoing Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld. No, seriously.
Quote(s) of the Week
"I believe the record speaks for itself Don Rumsfeld is the finest secretary of defense this nation has ever had." Vice President Cheney, apparently high on crack
City Council said farewell to 2006 with a fire alarm and a couple of still-burning issues: the Wal-Mart at Northcross Mall (still pending for at least 60 days) and the Big Box Ordinance, which passed on first reading yet remains in the balance as to crucial details. See "Point Austin" and "Beside the Point."
Amid signs of declining support for capital punishment, both California and Florida declared or extended moratoriums on the death penalty Florida after an execution by injection was botched and California after a judge declared death by injection "cruel and unusual punishment." In Texas, the capital prosecution of Anthony Graves was undermined when the DA's office had to recuse itself from any retrial (see p.24).
In response to a ringing defeat at the polls of his Iraq war and strategy, President George W. Bush has come up with a new, improved position: much, much more of the same. The official D.C. buzz is a "short-term surge" of U.S. troops 20,000 to 40,000 to "secure" Baghdad (where much of the populace says U.S. troops are the primary problem) and a simultaneous push to expand the overall size of U.S. military forces (from all those recruits banging on the door).
The AISD board of trustees voted 5-3 Monday to hold a special election in May to fill the vacant seat left by District 2 trustee Rudy Montoya, who left in November. The board was initially going to appoint a new board member Monday night but decided instead to hold an election after coming under criticism for not releasing the names of the candidates or holding public forums with the community. And though the local League of United Latin American Citizens insisted that a Hispanic should represent District 2, only one of the school board's five candidates, Gerald Guerra, is Hispanic. The downsides to holding a May election? The seat will remain vacant for another six months, it could cost the district as much as $50,000, and the winner will have to stand for re-election in May 2008. Michael May
In other AISD news, the board of trustees approved on Monday a 2007 school year that begins Aug. 27 no doubt pleasing those parents who complained that the district's practice of summoning kids back to school in mid-August went against their inviolable rights to life, liberty, and a long, lazy summer. The decision wasn't simply responding to the people, however. Rather, the legislation that came out of last year's special session on school finance, which included a provision that school can start no sooner than the fourth Monday in August. The fall semester will run to Dec. 20, 2007, with spring being Jan. 8 to June 4, 2008. The result is a fall semester that's 19 days shorter than the spring semester, though the district points out that Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills test preparation already eats up much of spring semester. Incidentally, those tests were frequently blamed for the earlier start date on the theory that in today's high-stakes environment, every extra day of learning helps. M.M.
A Travis Co. grand jury on Dec. 13 indicted three officers of the suspended UT fraternity Lambda Phi Epsilon on multiple charges of serving alcohol to minors and hazing. The indictments come a year after the death of 18-year-old LPE pledge Phanta "Jack" Phoummarath, who died of acute alcohol poisoning in connection with drinking during frat hazing rituals (his blood-alcohol level was a whopping .41). County Attorney David Escamilla said the investigation into the fraternity's pledge-hazing activities lasted most of the year. In the end, Escamilla told reporters, officials found that pledges were subjected to rites amounting to torture and were expected to drink excessive amounts of alcohol in all, he said, fraternity leaders demonstrated a "complete disregard" for the safety of members. LPE president Benny Chan was indicted on seven counts of providing alcohol to minors and 22 counts of hazing; pledge captain Andrew Nguyen faces seven counts of giving alcohol to minors and 28 counts of hazing; LPE pledge "Hellmaster" Camal Pulukuri was indicted on 14 counts of hazing. All counts are Class B misdemeanors the three could each spend more than a year in jail. Had the grand jurors found that excessive drinking, which caused Phoummarath's death, was in fact a requirement of LPE membership, the three would have faced felony charges. Jordan Smith
Now for a holiday message from your local law enforcement agencies: Do Not Drink and Drive. The Texas Department of Public Safety, Travis Co. Sheriff's Office, and APD will all be out in full force through New Year's Eve, their eyes trained to nab weavin'-and-boozin' scofflaws. Last year, during the week of Christmas alone, DPS troopers made 581 arrests for driving while intoxicated and issued nearly 14,000 speeding tickets; from Dec. 29 through Jan. 1, troopers made 461 DWI arrests. The TCSO has its own holiday DWI enforcement campaign under way, dedicated to the memory of Kayla Marie Floyd, who was killed by an underage drunk driver in 1997 at the age of 24. On Floyd's birthday, Dec. 27, drivers who are pulled over for any reason will be given a flyer with Floyd's picture as a reminder that the decision to drink and drive can carry grave consequences. J.S.
In other vehicular news, the APD released on Dec. 15 the Highway Enforcement Command's latest fatality review report, part of an ongoing initiative to make Austin's roadways safer. Since Sept. 26, 10 people have died on Austin roadways including three pedestrians and one motorcyclist. Not surprisingly, speed was a factor in 40% of the deaths, and alcohol was confirmed as a factor in one of the nine crashes that claimed the 10 lives. In all (as of Dec. 15), 62 people have died on Austin roadways this year; during the same period of time in 2005, there were 57 roadway deaths. J.S.
Holiday government closures, schedule changes: On Dec. 24, 25, 31, and Jan. 1, all Capital Metro routes will operate on a Sunday schedule, there will be no UT service, and the Tour the Town bus (route 470) will not be in operation. City of Austin administrative offices will be closed Dec. 25-26 and Jan. 1. There will be no garbage or recycling collection Dec. 25 or Jan. 1, and collection will be made a day later than normal during those weeks. The Household Hazardous Waste Facility will be closed Christmas week. All city libraries, cultural arts center facilities, and the Austin Nature and Science Center will be closed Dec. 24-26 and Jan. 1. All recreation and senior activity centers will be closed Dec. 25 and Jan. 1, as will all city pools. Also, AISD's holiday break starts Dec. 22 for students and Dec. 25 for district staff. Administrative offices open Jan. 8 and school starts Tuesday, Jan. 9. Lee Nichols
County commissioners finally passed the conservation development ordinance 15th draft and all during a low-key session on Tuesday, fulfilling Commissioner Karen Sonleitner's wish that the ordinance be passed before she leaves the court at the end of the year. Participation in the program remains voluntary, and any contract will come back to the court for final approval, giving commissioners a chance to approve incentives. A controversial memorandum of agreement with the BFI landfill, on the other hand, was pulled from Tuesday's agenda, meaning it probably won't be back until after the new year. Kimberly Reeves
Parks Director Warren Struss says the Trail of Lights is drawing record crowds this year, with up to 40,000 people walking through the 43 lighted scenes in Zilker Park each night. The Trail of Lights began as the Yule Fest, back in 1965, with a lighted display of the 12 days of Christmas, a display that is still part of the walking tour. The Trail of Lights, which saw 372,000 visitors last year, will continue through Dec. 23. K.R.
After months of turmoil, NBC affiliate KXAN-TV has a new news director. Michael Fabac of KLRT, the Fox affiliate in Little Rock, Ark., will take over the news department on Jan. 8; he replaces Bill Seitzler, who resigned in October after a tumultuous 10-month stint. Amid reports of plummeting morale, several key behind-the-scenes and on-air personnel either voluntarily left or were fired, including reporters Rich Parsons, Jim Bergamo, and weatherman Dan Robertson. Seitzler originally announced he would leave to join a consultancy at the end of the November sweeps ratings period but ultimately left at the beginning of November. Fabac met with newsroom managers before he was hired and displayed "a lot of positive energy and was very enthusiastic and talked a lot about passion, integrity, and love of news," according to KXAN general manager Eric Lassberg. In recent months, Lassberg held two staff meetings to try to air out grievances. Morale in the newsroom is "dramatically improving," he said. "We definitely have seen people feeling better about the future." One of Fabac's first challenges will be to "evolve" the look of the newscast, including the set and graphics, Lassberg said. Meanwhile, longtime reporter and anchor R.J. DeSilva has left to take a PR job. Kevin Brass
Capitol bloggers of the Texas Progressive Alliance have named Carolyn Boyle, the organizer of the Texas Parent PAC, as Texan of the Year. Parent PAC endorsements were tied to a number of high-profile defeats and victories during the most recent election cycle, most notably Diane Patrick unseating House Education Committee Chair Rep. Kent Grusendorf, R-Arlington. Last year's winner was former Rep. Carter Casteel, R-New Braunfels. The Progressive Alliance is a group of 25 liberal-leaning political blogs in the state, including, among others, Burnt Orange Report, Pink Dome, In the Pink Texas, and Eye on Williamson County. K.R.
For the last 25 years, Recycling Joy has been collecting used eyeglasses from Austinites and giving them, through Medical Mission International, to people in countries like Haiti and the Dominican Republic, where a single pair often exceeds a person's monthly wages. Spearheaded by Eye Physicians of Austin, the program has collected between 400,000 and 500,000 pairs since it began, distributing them during weeklong clinics. To ensure as many correct matches as possible, the physicians need around 25,000 glasses before they plan any given trip. They try to give every patient a pair with the correct specifications, from prescription to frame size; as a last resort, they find the closest match, even if it means "giving a woman a man's frame," explained EPOA administrator Ron Burgener. The weeklong clinics bring in up to 1,000 people a day, and the doctors examine each patient for eye disease and perform surgery if necessary on his last trip to Nicaragua, ophthalmologist Jim McNabb performed more than a dozen. "Most have never had glasses before," he said. Right now, EPOA is offering $25 discounts on new pairs of glasses ($50 for bifocals) to anyone who brings in a used pair by Jan. 31. See www.eyephysiciansofaustin.com for office locations. Nora Ankrum
The city of Austin is still looking to deck its halls with local artwork in the new year. As part of its third-annual People's Gallery Exhibit, the city is searching for paintings, prints, sculptures, installations, and digital art. Artists must apply at the city's Web site (www.ci.austin.tx.us/aipp/apply) by Jan. 5. Wells Dunbar
Veteran state Sen. Ken Armbrister, D-Victoria, is leaving office at the end of this term, but don't think for a moment that his water-carrying days are over. Gov. Rick Perry has named his favorite Democrat to be his legislative director, a job he'll assume in January. Readers will recall that Armbrister spent much of the Nineties and beyond in Austin-bashing mode as he sought to curtail the city's water-quality laws and other rule-making authority. On a personal level, Armbrister is a perfectly nice fellow with a fine appreciation for casseroles and stews borne of the Dutch oven; in his last regular session, he successfully sponsored a resolution to have this cast-iron trail-wagon cookery declared the official State Cooking Implement. Perry, who praised his new hire for his two decades of legislative service, figures Armbrister's Democratic ties will help him win bipartisan favor on key initiatives. Considering the number of times Armbrister bailed on his Dem colleagues, however, he may be in for a Dutch treat when he comes calling on Perry's behalf. Amy Smith
Beyond City Limits
On Dec. 14, the Chronicle got word from Austin political consultant Mike Blizzard, who is providing pro bono public relations services to Bexar Co. primate sanctuary Primarily Primates Inc., that famed "Humanzee" Oliver, the chimpanzee cover boy for our feature on the battle over animal welfare at PPI, has moved into a new, larger enclosure at the 75-acre sanctuary. (See "Famous Long Ago," last week.) It's "really good news," Blizzard said, and everyone at PPI is "really stoked about Oliver" being moved into an enclosure that he says is 10 times the size of his former home, a small red metal circus transport cage not much larger than a closet. In a phone message, Blizzard reported that Oliver is "very happy" with his new digs. By yesterday afternoon, he said, Oliver was kicking back and taking a nap he's "very tired," Blizzard said, "because he's been walking around" his new enclosure. J.S.
Environmentalists were absent at last week's Texas Transportation Commission meeting when new guidelines were approved for the environmental review process on Texas transportation projects. The guidelines, which were part of the recent passage of the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (or SAFETEA-LU), give Texas and four other states the ability to self-approve the environmental reviews of transportation projects without sending them on to the Federal Highway Administration. This will be a time savings to the agency, which says the FHA rarely contests the state's environmental process on the 900 or so projects they send to the feds each year. The appeals process will still be in place, so someone concerned about a project can trigger a federal review. K.R.
If the death penalty is supposed to assuage victims of violent crime and right a wrong, what does that mean for the families and friends of the executed? According to a new report (see www.mvfhr.org.) published by the Massachusetts-based Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights, the death penalty doesn't provide closure it creates additional victims. "Family members of the executed are the death penalty's invisible victims," said a press release on the report. "As a society, what are we doing to address the suffering of these families?" In a word: nothing or, at least, not nearly enough. MVFHR recommends that mental-health professionals, educators, and religious leaders develop assistance programs for this group of relatively invisible victims and urges lawmakers to enact legislation to ensure that the families of the executed are given access to the same assistance and support programs designed for other crime victims. J.S.
Security shortcomings at the South Texas Project nuclear power plant the two-reactor site in Bay City that provides 28% of Austin's electricity were aired in a meeting earlier this month between the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and plant officials, with the apparent intent of bringing closure to a tumultuous yearlong saga. Troubles began when several STP guards (security contractors with Wackenhut Corp.) approached the NRC last December with concerns ranging from security facilities and equipment in disrepair to poorly controlled weapons and ammo storage, said David Lochbaum, the director of nuclear safety projects for D.C.-based nonprofit Union of Concerned Scientists. Some guards reported subsequent retaliation while the NRC issued a "whitewashing" report this April, he said, and in June, the same guards came to the UCS and helped produce a scathing report detailing scores of security gaps, which got the attention of U.S. Rep. Ed Markey, who sent it to the NRC along with a nasty letter. Last month, in a revised report, the NRC cited STP for failing to inspect the plant's fire truck for bombs and bad guys upon returning from routine highway road tests, among numerous lesser safety issues. Daniel Mottola