Headlines and happenings from Austin and beyond
Quote of the Week"Why do you ask me these questions at 5 o'clock?"
Silvestre Reyes, D-El Paso and incoming chair of the House Intelligence Committee, deflecting a reporter's attempts to test his knowledge of the Middle East
Former President Gerald Ford died Tuesday, forever to be recalled as the Man Who Pardoned Richard Nixon. In the words of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."
In an occasion for greater international mourning, James Brown, Godfather of Soul and the Hardest Working Man in Show Business, died Monday of congestive heart failure, at the age of 73. Speaking in his autobiography of his musical influence across the generations, Brown wrote, "I taught them everything they know, but not everything I know."
Gearing up for the 80th legislative session to open Jan. 9, all the Capitol buzz is over the challenge to House Speaker Tom Craddick's reign by Plano Republican Brian McCall. Craddick says he has 109 pledges for re-election, but McCall has filed to challenge if he can get a few disgruntled Republicans to bolt, and hold the 69 Democrats eager for a rebellion, he has a shot at a majority in the 150-member House.
As the 79 recommendations of the Iraq Study Group slowly fade into obscurity Dubya having once again made it plain he won't accept anything less than "victory" the Bush administration has been generating PR buzz for a "surge" of U.S. troops into Baghdad, source unknown but with numbers running from 10,000 to as high as 40,000 "temporary" troops. Meanwhile, the Democrats, still basking in a November surprise that will push them into congressional majority come January, continue to be slow on the uptake: Bring the troops home, now!
On Dec. 21, a group of Round Rock High School parents slapped a class-action lawsuit on the city and school district for their strong-arm response in prosecuting students for allegedly skipping or disrupting school to join in a nationwide protest of immigration policy. The lawsuit accuses the city of Round Rock and RRISD of conspiring to violate students' constitutional rights of free speech and assembly, according to Texas Civil Rights Project director Jim Harrington, who is representing the 51 plaintiffs. "These unjustified and unlawful arrests
are a very poor example of a city and school district preparing students to be leaders in a democracy," Harrington says. Instead of wielding the "heavy hand of oppression" by arresting more than 200 students on March 30 and 31, Harrington asserts, the city should have treated the situation as a "teaching moment" "to help students learn about leadership and dissent" as did other school districts across the country. Not only that, the plaintiffs' case argues, the city's youth curfew ordinance does not apply to participation in activities protected by the U.S. Constitution. The lawsuit will seek unspecified damages and "a judgment specifying the rights of the Round Rock students
to prevent any further injustice," according to Harrington. City officials have consistently declined comment on the arrests, because litigation is still pending. The score is 1-1, with an acquittal for Irvin DeLuna and a conviction for Jennifer Avilez. Forty trials remain. Patricia J. Ruland
AISD's magnet high school at LBJ High, the Liberal Arts and Science Academy, is accepting applications for next school year. The school offers an advanced academic curriculum in the core subjects English, math, science, and social studies plus elective courses in subjects such as Shakespeare and multivariable calculus. The school is looking for students who want challenging classes, plan to enroll in a selective college, and want to be around students with similar goals. Interested eighth-, ninth-, and 10th-graders must send a completed application with report cards, Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills scores, and teacher recommendations by Jan. 17. Then comes a placement test and the opportunity to shadow a current LASA student. For more info, call 414-2589, or visit www.lasa.lbjhs.net. Michael May
Three homes on historic Rainey Street now have a home at the Star Hill Ranch in Bee Cave. The Historic Landmark Commission approved the removal of the homes at their meeting last week. One of the homes had belonged to a man believed to be a stonemason at the Capitol and a second to the man who completed much of the early original ironwork in the city. During the discussion of the removal of the homes, Steve Sadowsky, of the Historic Preservation Office, confirmed that there would probably never be an enclave of historic homes on the site of the Mexican American Cultural Center, an idea that was floated when rezoning the property along Rainey Street for high-intensity residential and commercial use was first discussed. The land along Rainey Street is now too valuable for such an enclave, Sadowsky said, and more importantly, no one has stepped forward to preserve any of the dilapidating homes in what was one of Austin's first neighborhoods. Kimberly Reeves
The Parks and Recreation Board was less than enchanted last week with the plans for Sand Beach Reserve Park, which will be carved out of the land in front of the new Gables housing development on Cesar Chavez. The Gables, which has agreed to front the bill for the 2-acre park, is putting close to $300,000 toward the effort, but Parks Board members appeared to want a little less belvedere and a little more open space. The designers of the park, Kevin Sloan Studio, will be back next month with a revised plan. K.R.
State Rep. Mark Strama, D-Austin, intends to make employee restrooms more accessible to people with certain medical conditions. Strama said he would file legislation this week that would require retail establishments to open their "employee only" bathroom doors to those with Crohn's disease, ulcerative colitis, and irritable bowel disease. The bill would also provide relief for pregnant women or people experiencing the side effects of medications that require frequent trips to the restroom. "A group of children afflicted by IBD proposed this legislation to me," Strama said, and he crafted the legislation in conjunction with the Texas affiliates of the national Crohn's & Colitis Foundation of America. Similar legislation has passed in Illinois, Maryland, and Michigan, he said. Question: How do you tell the difference between the people entitled to the special bathrooms and the people who just don't want to wait in line for the regular johns? Amy Smith
Viven los artes! Why? Well, as Joe Randel, the UT Performing Arts Center's new ArtesAméricas director, waxed in a recent press release, "Cultural misunderstanding and ignorance continue to spawn conflict and impede progress around the world. Through the lens of the Arts, ArtesAméricas can play an important role in creating a space where a dialogue promoting understanding and true cultural exchange can occur." Now in its third season, ArtesAméricas' main purpose is to bring Latino artists from all over the Americas to Austin. Randel, notes the press release, has been the center's events manager since 2003 but also "has an academic background in Latin American Studies, lived in Mexico both as a student and teacher, and is fluent in Spanish and Portuguese." He is the center's first ArtesAméricas director. Cheryl Smith
If you've got a speeding ticket (or any other class C misdemeanor ticket including parking violations, public drunkenness citations, and violations of city ordinances) that needs to be paid, but you can't find the time to visit the municipal court or to write that check and stick it in the mail, fret no more: Tickets can now be paid online. That's right, according to a city press release, tickets can now be paid via the muni-court Web site at www.cityofaustin.org/court; select the Online Citation/Ticket Information link, and access your fine file by using the ticket number, case number, or name and date of birth. Jordan Smith
The merry elves at Austin's Yellow Bike Project, the all-volunteer group known for refurbishing discarded and donated bikes before coloring them yellow, recently donated 30 bikes to the Austin Discovery School, a K-five charter school located on FM 969 that emphasizes social responsibility, good health, and environmental stewardship. The cycles will be used in the school's physical and environmental fitness curriculum. YBP donated 89 bikes to schools last year. Joining in the holiday cheer, the Austin Cycling Association plans to facilitate a bicycle-safety rodeo course for the ADS students, bestowing each rodeo rider with a free, new helmet and donating 30 additional helmets to stay on campus with the bikes. YBP encourages those interested in working on future donation bikes to show up at its main 51st Street location during shop hours, especially on Tuesday evening volunteer-only night. In need of a few holiday gifts of its own, Yellow Bike is trying to raise $300,000 to buy a new shop space, since its main shop, donated by the city, is slated for demolition in late 2007. Tax-deductible donations can be made by mail, by purchasing gift cards at select local bike shops and REI, online through iGive.com or on YBP's Web site, www.austinyellowbike.org. D.M.
In other cycling news, the Texas Bicycle Coalition recently issued a public call to action in response to TxDOT's decision to cut the state's major source of bicycle-trail funding. On Nov. 20, TxDOT rescinded its call for enhancement proposals, which encompass bike projects, eliminating funding hopes until the 2009 transportation bill, according to TBC. TxDOT has received 332 bike-trail proposals from across the state this year. The decision is rooted in the federal government's unusual request for states to return 2% of funding distributed under the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act of 2005 itself repeatedly looted by Congress to fund spending on everything from homeland security to Hurricane Katrina. TBC says Texas' share is about $305 million. "Most state DOTs are taking their cuts across the board from all of the eligible transportation categories," read a TBC statement. Instead, Texas is taking $230 million (75%) of the cut from state bike-trail enhancements. Spokesman Randall Dillard said TxDOT's decision was based on its refusal to cut funding to its five major goals: reducing congestion, improving air quality, enhancing safety, expanding economic opportunities, and increasing transportation asset value. Asked how additional bicycle trips and more bike tourism wouldn't meet those goals, Dillard said TxDOT feels that bike infrastructure "is the area with the smallest impact on achieving the goals." State funding for the popular, bike-oriented Safe Routes to School Program will also get the axe. For more info, as well as ways to take action, see www.biketexas.org. D.M.
Beyond City Limits
The governor's Environmental Flows Advisory Committee a heavy-hitter group that includes the heads of the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department, Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, and Texas Water Development Board submitted its list of recommendations to the Legislature last week on protecting environmental flows. Environmental flow, in broad terms, is the flow of water in rivers and streams necessary to protect the fragile ecosystems of the state's various basins and estuaries while still meeting the needs of existing and future water permits. Groundwork for the committee's work a basin-by-basin scientific approach to the issue was laid out in Senate Bill 3, a major water bill that failed to pass during the last regular session. The committee's recommendations "represent a general endorsement of the consensus process on environmental flow protections agreed to by environmental groups and water suppliers prior to the 2005 state legislative session," said Ken Kramer, executive director of the Texas Sierra Club. "I think the Advisory Committee's report will provide the momentum for legislative approval of this process. It's a great step forward." K.R.
A new report from the Center for Public Integrity says the $15 billion President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, which aims to provide care, treatment, and prevention of HIV/AIDS in developing countries, has been "slow" to procure generic anti-retroviral drugs and has instead "favored" the use of more expensive, brand-name ARVs. As a result, fewer people are receiving treatment. According to CPI, in 2004-05, PEPFAR spent about 5% of its ARV budget in all, less than $15 million on generic drugs. PEPFAR can only buy drugs approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and so far the FDA has only approved 26 generic ARVs, causing critics to charge that the government has been less than proactive in fighting the global HIV/AIDS problem, reports CPI. The nonpartisan watchdog group also notes that PEPFAR's focus on abstinence education as a means to prevent the spread of disease has become little more than a way for the Bush administration to funnel millions into Christian faith-based organizations according to the Government Accountability Office, spending on abstinence and "fidelity" programs was actually hurting other parts of the HIV/AIDS program, including the prevention of mother-to-child disease transmission. To read the entire report, go to www.publicintegrity.org/aids. J.S.
Turns out the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department isn't just a protector of parkland it's also guardian of the Gulf. TPWD was recently recognized for its preservation efforts by the Environmental Protection Agency's Gulf of Mexico Program. TPWD nabbed a Gulf Guardian Award for its help in training volunteers who responded to a major red-tide bloom last year on the Texas coast particularly on South Padre Island, where volunteers had to compensate for a lack of biologists, collecting nearly 400 water samples in about two months. Red tide is a naturally occurring, higher-than-normal concentration of the Karenia brevis algae, which produces a toxin that affects a fish's central nervous system, leaving them paralyzed, unable to breathe, and eventually dead. Humans in and around red-tide waters may experience irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat, as well as coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath. The Gulf of Mexico Program was initiated in 1988 to facilitate collaboration to protect, maintain, and restore the health and productivity of the Gulf of Mexico in concert with regional economic development (a formidable task). For more, see www.epa.gov/gmpo or www.tpwd.state.tx.us/landwater/water/environconcerns/hab/redtide. D.M.
Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings dropped by Editor Evan Smith's Texas Monthly Talks program on KLRU-TV last week on her weeklong holiday swing through Austin. Much of Smith's interview focused on the upcoming reauthorization of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which Spellings defended as far better on the accountability front than past federal education policy, which she characterized as "put the money out there, and hope for the best." Spellings did agree that intervention and support for failing schools should come before allowing students to transfer out to other schools. Spellings also defended her criticism of the PBS show Postcards From Buster, saying that the introduction of same-sex marriage in the show an issue of sexuality was best left to parents and had no place in an early literacy program for preschoolers. Smith's conversation with Spellings is tentatively scheduled to air Jan. 25 on KLRU. (Amusing side note: Spellings' visit coincided with the publication of Texas Monthly's issue featuring the mocking Bum Steer Awards, of which she was a recipient.) K.R.
The golden-cheeked warbler, an endangered Central Texas songbird that's often been the focus of land-conservation battles, is headed to a federal district courtroom in San Antonio. Well, the warbler might not be there in the feathers, but Aquifer Guardians in Urban Areas, an Edwards Aquifer protection nonprofit, will. They filed suit on Dec. 21 against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service for a power-line construction permit approved by the two agencies, which runs through warbler habitat in Bexar County. AGUA's suit alleges that USFWS' impact analyses violate federal law and that 87% of designated mitigation land had already been cleared. They say home builders are rapidly eliminating habitat between Austin and San Antonio and that regulators aren't enforcing a 1992 USFWS warbler recovery plan. AGUA says about 300 of the estimated 1,000 warblers needed for regional species recovery now exist. "This litigation seeks to stop the issuance of federal permits and biological opinions authorizing actions that affect warbler habitat until a plan is prepared and agreed upon to set aside the land necessary to protect the warbler," said Jim Blackburn, AGUA's attorney. "We hope that this suit will lead to additional protections for the unique ecology of the Hill Country in the long term," AGUA Vice President Annalisa Peace added. D.M.