Headlines and happenings from Austin and beyond
Quote of the Week"I [was] distressed to hear that many in the Heritage Neighborhood Association believe the city of Austin is trying to punish the neighborhood by not recommending a traffic circle. Please be assured that no city employee has 'punishment' behind their professional recommendation." City Manager Toby Futrell, in a letter to HNA officers (See last week's "Developing Stories.")
Briefly interrupted by last week's ice storm, the 80th Legislature proceeded with committee appointments, budget discussions, and rhetorical drum-beating about illegal immigration and sex offenders.
AISD announced the proposed closing of Webb Elementary School after three years of "unacceptable" Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills scores, a redesign at Johnston High School to avoid the same fate, and a proposed reorganization at Kealing Middle School in response to public criticism of the current school administration.
The war over Wal-Mart building a 200,000-plus-square-foot supercenter at Northcross Mall went psyops this week. Many in the surrounding neighborhoods reported receiving phone-banked calls last weekend, asking them their opinions on Wal-Mart's plans for the underused mall. But after this initial question, the caller would read several statements about the development, some more dubious than others, before querying them again. According to Wal-Mart foes Responsible Growth for Northcross, some of the truthier statements allege, "Wal-Mart has met all legal requirements and has been given permission to move in," "the other business[es] in the mall are excited and will have increased business once Wal-Mart opens," and "Wal-Mart will revitalize the entire neighborhood by moving into this location." RG4N decried the calls as push polls, which seek to change the participants' mind in the guise of an unbiased survey. But a more likely explanation is that Wal-Mart is identifying supporters and testing its message to see what works and what doesn't. Wells Dunbar
In other development news, City Manager Toby Futrell has demonstrated her responsiveness to the traffic concerns of the Heritage Neighborhood Association in a letter to HNA President Mikal Grimes. The neighborhood had suspected that it was being stonewalled in its attempts to get city support for a developer-financed traffic circle at West Avenue and 31st, as reported in the Chronicle last week. In her Jan. 22 letter to HNA, Futrell offered a "compromise" solution, offering to install five speed cushions (rather than a traffic circle, which the city regards as problematic) and proposing a neighborhood vote on their installation. If 60% of polled residents and property owners are in favor of the speed humps, said Futrell, "I will recommend the installation to Council as a fully informed, one-time opportunity." HNA is convening on a response. In asserting that the city's recommendation against a traffic circle had nothing to do with HNA's recent successful lawsuit against the city, Futrell noted, "If there is an overriding allegiance by city employees, it is to this city and the neighborhoods that make it the great city that it is." Awww positively heartwarming. Note: While the city did not appeal HNA's judgment against it, the other plaintiff (Buckingham Investments) appears to be doing so, according to HNA attorney Mark Perlmutter, who is preparing a cross-appeal. Katherine Gregor
In other city business, Austin looks one step closer to a new taxi franchise. This Thursday, City Council is set to approve an ordinance granting a franchise and some 55 taxi permits to Capital City Cab Company. Cap City Cab was one of three applicants, along with Lonestar Cab and Longhorn Cab Company, vying to take the place of Roy's Taxi, which folded last year. The selection process has been long and involved, with the Urban Transportation Commission creating a scoring matrix with the help of the franchise applicants themselves, after deciding to forego an arbitrary lottery system to select the winning franchise. Council also looks to amend franchise law to prohibit one franchise from acquiring more than 60% of the city's permits. But Cap City Cab can't earn its fares just yet: Council can't approve the franchise on third and final reading until 60 days after the initial reading today. And another 60-day waiting period is required after final approval, said Public Works spokesman Morris Poe. Lastly, the qualification scores of Cap City and Lonestar Cab are but one point apart, raising the possibility that Lonestar won't leave without a fight. W.D.
When we think of bird droppings, it's normally those little splatters on our windshields that concern us not some 63 pigeons, sparrows, and grackles dropping dead out of the sky. That's what occurred Jan. 8, when a collection of dead birds downtown, in close proximity to the Capitol, set off everyone's worst fears and closed Congress Avenue for half of the day. Well, the results are back, and city scientists are saying a quick drop in temperatures, exacerbated by a parasitic infection weakening the birds' systems, killed them off. Tests at College Station's Texas Veterinary Medical Diagnostic Laboratory and the National Veterinary Services Lab in Iowa ruled out worst-case scenarios like avian flu and West Nile virus but also intentional poisoning, which had been suspected at first. More results are pending, but as Adolfo Valadez, Travis Co. Health and Human Services' medical director, put it, "One too many stressors pushed them over the edge, and the birds died." W.D.
The murder trial of former UT student Colton Pitonyak started this week. Pitonyak is accused of murdering and dismembering his friend, 23-year-old Jennifer Cave, whose body was found in the bathtub inside Pitonyak's West Campus apartment on Aug. 18, 2005. Nearly 100 potential jurors were summoned to the courtroom of Travis Co. District Judge Wilford Flowers for screening; the county called more than the usual contingent out of concern that pretrial publicity in the sensational and grisly murder case might make it difficult to seat a jury. Cave had been missing for two days before her body was found in Pitonyak's empty apartment, dismembered in the bathtub, with a hacksaw lying on her chest. Reportedly, Cave had a history of drug use, and her friends told the Statesman they suspected she hung around Pitonyak when she was using. Pitonyak spent 60 days in jail in 2005 on minor drug-possession charges. Cave's autopsy revealed methamphetamine, marijuana, and alcohol in her system when she died. Jordan Smith
On the heels of a joint local-state-federal investigation, convenience-store operator Muhammad Aslam pled guilty Jan. 19 to federal charges of credit-card fraud and money laundering related to his unauthorized use of customer credit cards to steal $105,000 in goods. (Reportedly, Aslam ran his credit-card scam on customers at three area stores Convenient Food Mart on Loyola Lane, Corner Quick Stop on East 12th, and the Austin Food Mart on Bluff Springs Road.) The investigation also revealed that Aslam had used his business and personal bank accounts to clean about $8.4 million (including the proceeds of the credit fraud), according to an APD press release, when he only claimed just more than $1 million in business receipts to the state Comptroller's Office. APD began its investigation into Aslam in 2004, after receiving complaints of apparent credit-card fraud; the investigation was picked up by the Central Texas Financial Crimes Task Force, a multiagency operation led by the U.S. Secret Service and including the APD, IRS, the Texas Department of Public Safety, and the U.S. Postal Inspectors, among others. The feds were already familiar with Aslam, who served as a confidential informant for two years, until 2005, offering information on associates involved with a string of illegal gaming rooms across Austin. That long-term, multiagency investigation culminated with a 2005 raid in which police seized more than 700 eight-liner gaming machines. As part of Aslam's deal with the feds still pending approval by U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel he will face up to six years in prison. J.S.
Here are some of the things you would have learned from speakers at Monday night's Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization meeting: There's a New World Order, and they're trying to kill us. This is the year 2007 and "justice," "service," "friends," and "familia" are all seven-letter words. And banks now print their materials in Spanish because there's a plan afoot for one North American Union. Alex Jones' Infowar listeners ran amok Monday night, making Sen. Kirk Watson's first meeting as chair of CAMPO's Transportation Policy Board one big ode to conspiracy theories and clearly the oddest CAMPO meeting since toll roads were introduced more than two years ago. Still, Watson pressed forward with his proposed changes to the board, recommending that CAMPO signatories approved bylaw amendments that would downsize the board's size, diminish the role of proxies, and expand the public hearing process. The Phase II toll plan was pulled down indefinitely while a new financing task force looks at the issue. Members of the task force, which will start meeting Jan. 29, include Watson, Mayor John Trube of Buda, Travis Co. commissioners Gerald Daugherty and Sarah Eckhardt, Mayor Pro Tem Betty Dunkerley of Austin, Williamson Co. Commissioner Cynthia Long, a Hays Co. representative, plus former Chamber of Commerce President Greg Marshall; Frank Fernandez of Community Partnerships for the Homeless; David Ellis, who authored the Texas Transportation Institute's study on mobility financing; and Michael Replogle, national director of transportation for the Environmental Defense Fund. Kimberly Reeves
Veteran Trustee Rudy Montoya Jr. is back on the AISD board of trustees until May, when his successor for the Southeast District 2 position will be chosen in a special election. Montoya, who has served on the board for 10 years, announced his resignation last September after accepting a job at the Information Technology Division of the Texas Attorney General's Office. But he felt compelled to return after the board's initial plans to quickly appoint a successor failed. The board will tackle several issues of importance to Southeast schools over the next few months, such as the Johnston High School redesign, action on undesignated new schools, and the beginning of the budget process for the next school year. Michael May
In other school news, AISD is in the process of fine-tuning the boundaries of Blazier Elementary, which will open in Southeast Austin in August. The new boundaries are supposed to relieve overcrowding at Menchaca Elementary; the tentative plan moves all Menchaca students living east of I-35 over to Blazier. The Community Facility Use and Boundary Task Force is also considering whether to move fifth graders over to Blazier or let them finish at their current schools, and also where Blazier students will go for middle and high school. AISD is holding a public meeting on the Blazier boundaries Thursday, Jan. 25, at 6:30pm in Menchaca's cafeteria, 12120 Manchaca. M.M.
Also, the district has announced the advisory board for the Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders. The school, which will open in August, was created by a partnership between AISD and the Foundation for the Education of Young Women, which donated $1 million to the school. The advisory board will serve as advocates for the school and its students, raise supplementary funds, work with the principal on how to spend those funds, and create networks for the students to help them find mentors and internships, among other things. Ellen Richards, daughter of former Gov. Ann Richards, replaces her mother as chair of the board, which also includes CEOs, district judges, nonprofit leaders, philanthropists, and at least one earthy-yet-glamorous movie star (Sandra Bullock). Feb. 9 is the application deadline for the school, which is holding an open house on Saturday, Jan. 27, from 10am to noon at the future site, Porter Middle School, 2206 Prather Ln. M.M.
Anti-war group United for Peace and Justice has put out a national call to ask communities across the nation to gather in Washington, D.C., this Saturday to call for an immediate end to the occupation of Iraq. Those who can't make it to the national demonstration, take heart: Local anti-war groups are gathering at Austin City Hall at 3pm and marching to the state Capitol for a rally featuring Hart Viges of Veterans for Peace, Texas Green Party Co-Chair Douglas Reber, Ruben Solis of Southwest Workers Union, Hadi Jawad of the Crawford Peace House, and others. Diana Welch
A fledgling anti-tax group is rattling its tin cup as legislators ponder the realities of a $14 billion budget surplus, which many believe is just a mirage. Regardless, the newly formed Texans for Fiscal Responsibility prefers to strike while the iron is hot in seeking more relief for taxpayers and fewer dollars for government. The group is trying to build grassroots support with mailers sent to 29,000 households in eight Senate districts across Texas all conservative districts whose delegates serve on the Senate Finance Committee. Constituents of other senators on the committee were not targeted because Democratic or swing districts are more likely to favor additional funding for education and health-care programs. But TFR President Michael Quinn Sullivan argues that tax cuts should take priority: "Too often the voices of hard-working Texans are drowned out by the shrill demands of special interests seeking more from the taxpayers' wallet," he said in announcing the mail-out effort. Of course, the surplus isn't as big as it looks on paper. Some of the "extra" cash will go toward offsetting property-tax cuts that are part of a new school-finance package the Legislature passed last year. Additionally, at least $2 billion of the surplus will be tucked away into state's emergency fund. Amy Smith
Beyond City Limits
In other Lege news, two can be a lonely number, especially when it's you and the House's most left-leaning member voting against a measure. Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, found that out this week when she joined Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, in voting against putting "In God We Trust" over the Speaker's podium in one of the first resolutions passed by the House. Howard isn't anti-religion, but she wasn't going to lie down and take the easy vote, either. "I came to the House to address funding our schools and higher education and our roads and that sort of thing," she said. "I didn't come to address the words above the Speaker's podium. That's not what my constituents sent me here to deal with." Religion is an important issue to people who are part of a faith community, but it's not necessarily the first order of business in government, Howard said. K.R.
Hellraiser lawsuit Simmons and Fisher v. Williamson County busts out of the chute on Jan. 26, in a pretrial hearing in Judge Lee Yeakel's chambers. Two former Williamson Co. Sheriff's Office boys, Ralph Fisher and Barry Simmons, are suing Sheriff James Wilson for demoting them from lieutenant to deputy in retaliation for supporting predecessor Jim Wilson [no relation] in the 2004 primary and for reporting alleged theft and sexual harassment by top hand Capt. Shawn Newsom. Cowboy imagery is almost mandatory here, for letters written by Mike Davis, attorney for WilCo and Wilson, slammed the plaintiffs' legal team, headed by Derek Howard, for acting like "Austin sissy boys" and also warned them, "This ain't my first rodeo." So far, WilCo has landed on its Levi's two attempts at dismissal failed, and tall-talkin' District Attorney John Bradley was disqualified as an expert witness. The Wilson saga has everyone feelin' like they're ridin' in a parallel rodeo, as Davis rode for a rival brand not so long ago, defending Jim Wilson in a lawsuit brought by Newsom for his firing. Davis identified Newsom as WSCO's "Little Hitler" in pleadings then, which could figure into upcoming proceedings. "Newsom is Davis' star witness now," Howard points out. Yeakel may set a trial date on Friday. Patricia J. Ruland