The Austin Chronicle

https://www.austinchronicle.com/news/2007-02-02/441526/

Naked City

February 2, 2007, News


Quote of the Week

"We are the people who run this country. We are the deciders. And every single day, every one of us needs to step outside and take some action to help stop this war. Raise hell. Make our troops know we're for them and trying to get them out of there. Hit the streets to protest Bush's proposed surge. … We need people in the streets, banging pots and pans and demanding, 'Stop it, now!'" – syndicated political columnist Molly Ivins of Austin, who passed away from breast cancer Wednesday evening at the age of 62


Headlines

• Nothing like a drunken homicide, bungled butchering, and foiled escape to bring out the headlines and Court TV. On Monday, Colton Pitonyak was sentenced to 55 years in prison for the August 2005 West Campus murder of his friend Jennifer Cave. See "Pitonyak Trial: From Court TV to You" for more.

• The Lege is slowly rounding into action. House Speaker Tom Craddick finally announced his committee assignments; in a minor rebellion, the House refused to suspend the rules to speed legislation; and criminal justice hearings began with the unsurprising news that the prisons are full of nonviolent criminals awaiting release for lack of rehabilitation programs. See "On the Lege" for more.

• AISD proposed moving 200 students from overcrowded Wooldridge Elementary to underenrolled Brentwood, where parents said it's too fast, too soon, and will disrupt the smaller campus. See "AISD: Another Overcrowding Conundrum."

• On Saturday, hundreds of thousands of people joined demonstrations against the Iraq war across the country, including Austin, and pressed the new Democratic Congress to act. Meanwhile, the Bush administration said it would continue to add troops and began to beat the propaganda drums for possible attacks on Iran.


Naked City

• Syndicated columnist Molly Ivins died Wednesday evening, after her long-running battle against breast cancer took a turn for the worse last week. The Texas icon was hospitalized at Seton Medical Center on Thursday. She returned home Monday to be with friends and family. Ivins, 62, was first diagnosed with cancer in 1999 and it recurred in 2003 and 2005. In August she underwent chemotherapy treatment, but the cancer "came back with a vengeance," and spread through her body, her brother Andy told the Houston Chronicle. Her most recent column, published in January, was her first in months. It urged readers to stand up against President Bush's plan to send more troops to Iraq. "We are the people who run this country," Ivins wrote. "And every single day, every single one of us needs to step outside and take some action to help stop this war. Raise hell." – Kevin Brass

• The folks at the Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer Conservation District downgraded the aquifer's ongoing drought conditions from Critical to Alarm Stage. They say heavy rains Jan. 13 and since have allowed for increased recharge. Alarm stage still requires the district's permittees to reduce water pumping by 20% from nondrought amounts (down from 30%) and BSEACD board President Bob Larsen recommends that everyone continue to minimize water use and adopt water-wise habits. "Unless we get substantial amounts more rain this spring, the district may re-enter Critical Stage as early as April or May," said Larsen. All of the major creeks that cross the aquifer's recharge zone are continuing to flow – a major contributor to recharge. An additional 7-foot rise in the district's Lovelady monitoring well in South Austin, as well as sustained flow at Barton Springs, could bring an end to the drought entirely. Declared in October 2005, the drought was upgraded to Critical Stage in September 2006 for the first time in the BSEACD's 20-year existence. For more info and for conservation tips, see www.bseacd.org. – Daniel Mottola

• Last week, Austin Independent School District Superintendent Pat Forgione came to a public meeting at Webb Middle School, where he told the hundreds of parents gathered that he plans to close the school. According to Forgione, he has no choice. He said the Texas Education Agency is likely to close the school next summer for failing to meet state standards four years in a row, and then the district would only have a month or two to make arrangements. "We just don't have the resources to solve the problem here at Webb," he said. His solution – sending students to other schools that are also low-performing – did not go over well with parents, who stayed at the meeting past 10pm to express their frustration, and then showed up at another meeting Tuesday to do the same. Webb parent Illene Jones berated Forgione for busing students around "like merchandise," and told him to give students a chance to pass the test this June. "Before the district closes the school," yelled Jones, "let the TEA make their decision, and let the chips fall as they may." – Michael May

• In other AISD news, the board of trustees is considering an interim bond proposal that, according to AISD facilities director Paul Turner, would be "small and strategic" and targeted to meet several needs that were unanticipated in the 2004 bond. For instance, the state Legislature has since required that all high school graduates take four years of science – and that's going to take new science labs. Also, according to Turner, AISD did not anticipate in 2004 just how dense Austin would get. "We are finding that many recent immigrants are staying in relatives' homes and apartments when they arrive," Turner says. A new bond could help the district buy land and add classrooms north of Highway 183 and south of Oltorf. AISD's board will begin considering the bond during a work session on Feb. 5. – M.M.

• Also, AISD begins its Financial Aid Saturdays Feb. 3. The program helps students and their parents complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, which can provide students with access to money for college. There will be three sessions on each Saturday this month, at 9am, 10:45am, and 12:30pm. Financial Aid Saturdays takes place at Akins High this week, Travis High on Feb. 10, Lanier High Feb. 17, and Reagan High Feb. 24. – M.M.

• The Planning Commission leapfrogged the city's affordable-housing task force Tuesday night, suggesting that a new 18-unit bungalow project in the South Lamar neighborhood provide a number of significantly affordable-housing units if it intends to seek a variance for higher density. A city task force is exploring tying developer-requested variances for greater density to requirements for affordable housing; an outright requirement for affordable housing is prohibited under state law. The Planning Commission suggested to council Tuesday night that the four additional units being requested by the Thornton Bungalows be tied to homeowners who earn 50% of the city's median family income. Commissioner Perla Cavazos praised the suggestion, calling it a bold move that might be stripped by council, but one that would jump-start the discussion on the need to create affordable housing. – Kimberly Reeves

• Austin Police are asking for help locating a pair of suspects in connection with the Jan. 14 robbery of the Omkar Food Mart at 812 Thurmond. Just after 6pm, a black male in a "puffy-type" black coat went into the store, asked for a "black and mild" cigar, and then whipped out a black, short-barreled shotgun and demanded money from the clerk. The suspect – about 25, with "marks" or tattoos near one or both of his eyes – fled the store and hopped in an older four-door purple sedan driven by another man – also black, around 20 years old – and took off, heading southbound on Lamar. Anyone with information about the robbery should call APD's robbery tip line at 974-5092 or Crime Stoppers at 472-8477. – Jordan Smith

• February is Black History Month; several related events are planned throughout the city over the next few weeks. For a partial list, see p.68.


Beyond City Limits

Air America Radio moved to strengthen its financial foundation this week, but it's losing its biggest star. The progressive talk network, heard locally on KOKE-AM (1600), announced Monday that Al Franken, the former Saturday Night Live performer who has grown to personify the network, will end his midday show on Feb. 14. He'll be replaced in the midday slot by Thom Hartmann, whose show is currently syndicated by Air America. Franken has discussed the possibility of running for the U.S. Senate in Minnesota. His imminent departure dampened news that the network has found a new financial sugar daddy in the form of Stephen Green, a real estate mogul and brother of well-known New York progressive activist Mark Green. Green has agreed to buy the network, which is currently in Chapter 11 bankruptcy. If the plan is approved, it might provide some financial stability to the network, which has struggled since debuting three years ago. The network is now heard on 81 affiliates around the country. – K.B.

• A third high-profile lawsuit aimed at halting Texas' rush to build 17 coal-fired power plants has been filed. In the latest suit, four environmental groups have sued Gov. Rick Perry, claiming that his 2005 executive order to fast-track plant permitting is illegal and unconstitutional. Particularly, the suit targets Perry's directives to the State Office of Administrative Hearings, which resulted in an expedited schedule for public contested case hearings to be held there, not to mention SOAH's decision to combine application hearings for six proposed TXU plants into one. According to plaintiff attorneys, "The Texas Legislature created SOAH as an independent judicial agency within state government, and the governor lacks the authority to direct the manner in which SOAH conducts its hearings." They add that the Texas Constitution prohibits such gubernatorial interference. In response, Perry spokesman Ted Royer called the suit "nothing more than another attempt by liberal activists to turn Texas into California when it comes to the power supply." The groups behind the suit, however, are mostly ad hoc formations of rural citizens who will be personally affected by the new plants. – D.M.

• In other air-quality news, the formation of the U.S. Climate Action Partnership was announced last week, uniting four prominent green groups with several major corporations – including Alcoa, BP America, Caterpillar, Duke Energy, DuPont, Florida Power & Light, GE, Lehman Brothers, and PG&E – to call for aggressive, market-based caps on carbon emissions. Consistent with proposed federal carbon-capping legislation, the group supports a cap-and-trade system to cut greenhouse emissions 60% to 80% from current levels by 2050, with interim targets at five, 10, and 15 years. Dallas-based TXU, whose 11 proposed coal plants will help double Texas' already nation-leading CO2 emissions, released a statement the same day claiming goals consistent with USCAP, though a spokeswoman said the utility's plans would proceed unchanged, adding that TXU wasn't formally invited to join USCAP. Meanwhile, TXU lobbied Washington last week, apparently fearing that the increasing probability of federal carbon caps will black out their billion-dollar coal bonanza. See www.us-cap.org for more. – D.M.

• It ain't just a conspiracy, folks. In a 44-page report entitled No Real Threat, the ACLU has documented the Department of Defense's monitoring of at least 186 anti-military protests in the United States and collection of more than 2,800 reports involving Americans in an "anti-terrorist threat database." One such protest chronicled by the Pentagon apparently occurred here in Austin, at the Dobie Mall recruiting center in April 2005. In an "update submitted to clarify why the Students for Peace and Justice represent a potential threat to DoD personnel," the Pentagon made its case by pointing out that the student group blocked the entrance to the recruiting office with coffins draped in American and Iraqi flags, taped posters on its windows, and chanted, "No more war and occupation; you don't have to die for an education." According to the account, the students apparently scared the bejesus out of the recruiters: The Dobie Mall manager and APD were alerted before they shut the doors to the recruiting office for the rest of the day. – Diana Welch

• Doctors who perform third-trimester, late-term abortions – or an abortion for a minor without parental consent – aren't eligible for the death penalty, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott wrote in a Jan. 24 opinion. Instead, a doctor performing either "prohibited practice" could face either class A misdemeanor or third-degree felony charges, the punishments ascribed by the state's Occupations Code. Abbott ruled in connection with an opinion request filed in June by Rep. David Swinford, R-Dumas. Swinford, chair of the House State Affairs Committee, asked Abbott to clarify the punishment for doctors who run afoul of state abortion law after he read a legislative guide written for state prosecutors by the Texas District and County Attorneys Association, suggesting that since lawmakers in 2003 redefined the term "individual" to include any viable unborn fetus, a doctor who performs the procedure – and, thus, according to law, intentionally kills a child – could face capital murder charges and possibly receive a death sentence. By "changing the definition of 'individual' … to include 'an unborn child' at any stage of development, the Legislature expanded capital murder to include the killing of that unborn child," reads the TDCAA's biennial legislative update. Swinford – whose committee considers legislation covering all things fetus-related – doubted the TDCAA's reasoning, since the Occupations Code clearly defines the potential violations and their punishments, and does not contemplate a capital murder charge. In the end, Abbott agreed. – J.S.

• Apart from the basic criticism of caps on government spending, the Pauken Commission report on appraisal reform released last week is being panned among lobby groups as being far inferior to the work of the Sharp Commission, which launched the successful effort for a new business tax. Various groups called the proposals – self-reported sales price disclosures, a sales-tax/property-tax swap, and a supposed prohibition on unfunded mandates – watered-down versions of real reform. The real cornerstone of the report – the "crown jewel" as Gov. Rick Perry called it – is a mandatory rollback election for local spending that's more than 5% above growth. That decreases the rollback rate from 8% to 5%, tightening up local government spending. Perry promises similar reforms on the state level. – K.R.

• Gov. Rick Perry announced last week his own plans for a military "surge" with Operation Wrangler, which will add 604 troops to the 1,700 National Guardsmen he had already deployed to the border with last year's Operation Jump Start. In addition to the extra soldiers, Operation Wrangler will involve, according to Perry's office, "6,800 personnel, 2,200 vehicles, 48 helicopters, 33 fixed-wing aircraft, and 35 patrol ships." The announcement came days before Mexico's National Human Rights Commission announced that the use of deadly force on both sides of the border has increased, citing the December death of Guillermo Martinez, who was shot by California immigration officials. D.W.

• Jailed polygamist prophet Warren Jeffs, leader of the breakaway Mormon sect the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was taken Jan. 27 from his federal prison cell in southern Utah to a local hospital after complaining of heart problems. Reportedly, prison staff found a "distressed" Jeffs in his cell; he was transported under heavy guard to the hospital where he was checked out and released back to prison custody later that morning, according to the St. George, Utah, Spectrum. Jeffs is in prison awaiting trial on state felony charges that he acted as an accomplice to rape by performing polygamist marriages between underage girls and older, often already-married men. Jeffs has pleaded not guilty to the charges; his lawyers claim his prosecution is nothing more than religious persecution. – J.S.

• When General Motors unveiled the Volt, its plug-in hybrid electric car, recently, giddiness no doubt overcame the folks at Plug-In Partners, the national organization (founded by the city of Austin) that's amassed support from 500 partners, including 40 major cities, and tallied 8,300 "soft" plug-in orders. Mayor Wynn gave a related briefing in Washington Jan. 23. Observers are encouraged by the Volt's "serial" hybrid technology that powers its wheels with an electric motor backed up by a combustion engine, not vice versa as in today's hybrids – not to mention promises by Toyota, Nissan, Ford, and allegedly Honda, that they too will build plug-ins. Several Austin-area congressmen have also committed to author bills promoting and incentivizing plug-ins. And President Bush, after touting plug-ins by name in his State of the Union address, issued an executive order mandating that government fleets use them when they become available. Meanwhile, however, auto industry reformers like vehicles engineer Don MacKenzie of the Union of Concerned Scientists attacked the overall nongreen fleets of GM and other major manufacturers. He urged automakers to ditch the doublespeak and implement existing fuel efficiency and hybrid technology today on all their vehicles, improving their lines' overall fuel economy and environmental footprint. (Ahem, GM's Hummer SUV?). – D.M.

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