Naked City

An activist rallying against TXU at the Capitol last month
An activist rallying against TXU at the Capitol last month (Photo By Sandy Carson)


Quote of the Week

"Clearly TXU has been exaggerating the need for these plants, and I think the speed with which they abandoned the project speaks volumes."– State Sen. Rodney Ellis, on the proposed buyout of the utility giant that will derail eight of the 11 coal-fired power plants TXU sought to build


Headlines

• Democratic presidential candidate and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama stopped by last Friday, visiting 20,000 or so of his friends at Auditorium Shores. In an intermittent warm drizzle, Obama told the crowd he was "overwhelmed" by the response. See "Point Austin," at right.

• Amid a semicarnival Downtown atmosphere in the chilly early sunshine, the hulk of the Intel shell was imploded Sunday morning by the U.S. General Services Administration, clearing the way for eventual construction of a new federal courthouse. Conspiracy theorists immediately clogged the Internet, demanding, "What did Bush know, and when did he know it?" See p.22 for photos.

• A group of investors led by Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co. and Texas Pacific Group announced a pending buyout of the major state energy utility TXU Corp., to coincide with a series of structural revisions – including canceling eight of 11 proposed coal plants – negotiated with environmental groups. The transaction still faces major regulatory and legislative hurdles. See p.24 for more.

• The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the state's appeal of the ruling that Robert Springsteen must be retried in the 1991 yogurt-shop capital-murder case, because prosecutors unconstitutionally used the confession of another suspect against Springsteen. Prosecutors say they'll retry the case; see p.27 for more.

Obamamania hit Austin on Friday, as the Senator/rock star/presidential candidate from Illinois drew a shockingly large crowd – estimated at 17,000 to 20,000 – to Auditorium Shores. That's bigger than any anti-war protest in Austin in recent years. For more, see Point Austin.
Obamamania hit Austin on Friday, as the Senator/rock star/presidential candidate from Illinois drew a shockingly large crowd – estimated at 17,000 to 20,000 – to Auditorium Shores. That's bigger than any anti-war protest in Austin in recent years. For more, see "Point Austin." (Photo By Jana Birchum)

City Council meets today (Thursday) with a relatively light agenda, and notably the opportunity to endorse a state legislative move to allow "meet-and-confer" bargaining rights to city employees not currently covered by those protections. See "Beside the Point," p.18.


Naked City

Austin Toros head coach and three-time NBA champion Dennis Johnson died last Thursday after collapsing outside the Austin Convention Center following a Toros practice session. He was 52 years old. According to Emergency Medical Services spokesman Warren Hassinger, Johnson was unconscious and in cardiac arrest when paramedics arrived on the scene. He was taken to Brackenridge Hospital, where he was pronounced dead. Johnson, a five-time All-Star during his 14-year pro career, was halfway through his second season as head coach of the Toros, Austin's representatives in the NBA Development League. Praised throughout his career as an exceptional basketball mind, Johnson was a perfect fit for the "education-first" D-League, where he led the Toros to a 24-24 record in their first year. A public memorial service for the man basketball fans knew simply as D.J. was held this past Sunday at the David Chapel Baptist Church on East MLK. Basketball luminaries such as Bill Walton and Doc Rivers were in attendance. Former Celtics teammate Cedric Maxwell told the crowd of nearly 200 that Johnson was "one of the greatest players of all time." Born and raised in Compton, Calif., Johnson will be buried Friday in nearby Gardena. He's survived by his wife, Donna; two sons, Dwayne and Daniel; and a daughter, Denise. – Josh Rosenblatt

• While City Council recently created a new Business Retention and Enhancement Program to help small businesses – like Las Manitas and Escuelita del Alma – on Congress Avenue and East Sixth being displaced by development, Escuelita is – get this – excluded from the program. The Downtown child-care center is not qualified to receive low-interest loan assistance from the BR&EP because, in the fund guidelines, "child-care center" is not included as an eligible business use. Mayor Pro Tem Betty Dunkerley said this was because the program needed to be defensibly backed up by existing retail studies; those Downtown Austin Alliance studies did not address child-care centers. Dunkerley stated, "Escuelita would not be able to use these funds, but we are trying to find other ways to help the school." An Escuelita parent said the center plans to apply for a BR&EP loan anyway. – Katherine Gregor

• Responding to weeks of community activism, the Austin Independent School District board of trustees voted unanimously Monday night to keep open Webb Middle School, at least "until further direction is obtained from the Texas Education Agency." Webb has been rated "academically unacceptable" for three consecutive years and is at risk of closure by TEA if it does not receive an "acceptable" rating this spring. The board's action effectively rejected Superintendent Pat Forgione's initial recommendation that the school be closed at the end of this term, revised more recently to a phased closure and "repurposing" of the school, with the current students transferred to other campuses. Forgione argued it was better for the campus to be redirected in advance of any decision to close by the state, but parents and students at the school had organized strongly against his proposals. The trustees also directed Forgione to develop strategies that will "move the school to recognized status … where all students can succeed." Trustees asked that administrators and the school community work together to develop "persuasive arguments" for the state education commissioner on why the campus should remain open for 2007-2008. – Michael King

• At another beleaguered Eastside campus, dozens of students from Kealing Middle School left class on Friday to march on the Capitol, in protest of the AISD proposal to effectively split the school internally, between Kealing's districtwide academic magnet program and the neighborhood-based comprehensive program. Chanting "One school! One school!" the students marched on the Capitol in recognition of the increasing state pressure to use high-stakes testing – the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills – to determine the academic future of the school. Because the comprehensive-program testing scores are so much lower on average than the magnet scores – thereby skewing the state's "accountability" rankings – the district has proposed splitting the TAKS accounting numbers for the two programs, essentially creating two "schools within the school." However, that split would also indirectly reinforce segregation patterns in race, economic status, and academic preparation that the magnet programs were historically intended to counteract. Campus opinion is strongly divided over the proposal, as well as over the administrative policies of Principal Ron Gonzales, appointed to the position last fall. – M.K.

• The Mueller Airport redevelopment is closer to opening, with the initial process of becoming a homeowner kicking off next week. Starting Monday, March 5, prospective homeowners can sign up online or in person as part of the Mueller Pioneers program. The first step is selecting the desired home type (yard, row, or garden court) and developer. Then, would-be buyers must get a prequalification letter from the developer's preferred lender, which includes a $50 nonrefundable payment. (Those looking for affordable housing must also get their income certified.) At this point, applicants will be assigned priority numbers. Get more info at www.muelleraustin.com and, starting Monday, at Mueller Central, 4550 Mueller Blvd., 703-9220. – Wells Dunbar

<a href=http://SaveTownLake.org/ target=blank>SaveTownLake.org</a> held a Tuesday evening rally at City Hall, just prior to Planning Commission and Parks & Recreation Board consideration of variances to the Waterfront Overlay. Developers are seeking the variances to build high-rises closer to Town Lake than allowed by code. The group advocates a no-variance policy to the Waterfront Overlay; it presented a petition signed by more than 1,500 like-minded citizens.
SaveTownLake.org held a Tuesday evening rally at City Hall, just prior to Planning Commission and Parks & Recreation Board consideration of variances to the Waterfront Overlay. Developers are seeking the variances to build high-rises closer to Town Lake than allowed by code. The group advocates a no-variance policy to the Waterfront Overlay; it presented a petition signed by more than 1,500 like-minded citizens. (Photo By John Anderson)

• The Travis County Sheriff's Office says 52-year-old jail inmate Eulogio Larry Luna III died at Brackenridge Hospital Feb. 25, a day after he was found, unresponsive, in his cell. Luna had been in jail since Feb. 20, when Austin Police arrested him on a drug-possession charge. A preliminary report from the Travis County Office of the Medical Examiner found no sign of injury or foul play, TCSO reported in a press release Monday. A toxicology report is pending, but the ME's office has indicated that Luna died of "natural causes," reports TCSO. Luna was the second inmate to die in TCSO custody this year. On Feb. 21, a little more than an hour after she was brought to the jail for assault and drug possession charges, 24-year-old Niqa Deshan Gant began displaying "some odd behavior" and was taken to the medical section at the Downtown jail central-booking facility, where she began having seizures. Paramedics took her to Brackenridge where she died, reports TCSO. An autopsy report is awaiting toxicology results, but, as with Luna, the ME found no signs of injury or foul play. TCSO's Internal Affairs and Major Crimes Units will investigate each case, standard procedure for all in-custody deaths. – Jordan Smith

• The controversial Crossing at Bouldin Creek case appeared before the Planning Commission this week, where it received final approval – with two no votes, and one abstention. Neighbors sought to fight the development, planned on more than 50 lots, as they've maintained the area it will be built around floods dramatically when it rains, despite recently revised FEMA flood maps claiming it doesn't. They also fear that building in the floodplain may channel floodwaters across the creek and into their own backyards. For more on this, see "Are the Waters Rising at Bouldin Creek?" April 28, 2006. – W.D.

• Beginning Monday, March 5, the Little Walnut Creek Branch of the Austin Public Library (835 W. Rundberg) will close for a renovation project to expand the parking and replace the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning system. The branch will be closed until December. The public is invited to an open house at Little Walnut on Saturday, March 3, from 10am until noon. While the Little Walnut branch is closed, patrons are encouraged to use the North Village (2139 W. Anderson) and St. John (7500 Blessing) branches. – Lee Nichols

SustainLane, a San Francisco-based Internet and media company "dedicated to bringing green to the mainstream," has just ranked Austin the No. 1 most likely city to host the Cleantech Economic Revolution. What's Cleantech, you ask? SustainLane defines it as venture-capital-funded technology start-ups in areas including: energy generation (such as solar, wind, and geothermal), storage, and efficiency; advanced transportation technologies and biofuels; and green building. As for what set Austin apart, SustainLane cited seven local start-ups developing everything from Internet-controlled irrigation to wind- and geothermal-energy technologies, as well as the Austin Clean Energy Incubator, a research-and-development collaborative initiated by UT (and now including Austin Energy) that lassos local, state, and federal resources to foster local green-leaning start-ups. Mayor Will Wynn applauded the announcement, because it "knocks another brick from the wall some people want to place between a strong economy and a healthy environment. In Austin, we know that's a false dichotomy and that our economic strength is heavily predicated on having a clean, livable environment. So, we're going to keep directing our future economic growth toward solution industries, not those that move us in the wrong direction." Last year SustainLane's Government division ranked Austin No. 14 in the U.S. for overall urban sustainability. For more, see www.sustainlane.us and www.sustainlane.com. – Daniel Mottola


Beyond City Limits

• In the wake of statewide dithers emanating from county records offices, on Wednesday Attorney General Greg Abbott "abated" for 60 days his week-old opinion that counties must not release Social Security numbers when providing county records. SSNs are commonplace in legal documents of all kinds and readily available in courthouse records. Abbott's opinion responded to a 2005 state law attempting to restrict distribution of private information, particularly on the Internet (presumably more convenient to identity theft), confirming that it is now a crime to release such information. County clerks have responded by refusing records requests, closing document rooms, and saying they would have to hire new staff to handle the necessary redaction. "The real-world consequence," said Abbott, "was a virtual halt to a tremendous amount of business and commerce in Texas." He said the temporary abatement would "allow the Legislature ample time for thorough deliberation and action." – M.K.

• A task force appointed by the Texas Supreme Court says the best way to improve jury services is to create a statewide database that individual counties can access and cull. In a report issued last month, the Task Force on Jury Assembly and Administration supported the secretary of state's office's efforts to merge driver's license and voter-registration forms into one master database list that could be accessed by individual counties. The task force also wants to put people with misdemeanor theft charges – say, a shoplifting charge or theft by check – back into the jury pool. Right now, people with such convictions are disqualified forever from jury service. The task force recommends that such people be put back in the pool or, at the very least, included after some period of time after probation is completed. – Kimberly Reeves

• Last month, just as Irving-based ExxonMobil announced 2006 profits of $39.5 billion – upping its 2005 world record take by 9% – the company was slapped with an intent-to-sue notice by New York state's attorney general to force the cleanup of a decades-old oil spill beneath Brooklyn's Greenpoint neighborhood. The spill, estimated at 17 million gallons, is the result of oil refining and storage in the area by Exxon's predecessors dating back to the 1800s, according to a Bloomberg news report. Prior citizen suits alleged that Exxon, which still operates nearby, failed to prevent or clean up the spill when it was discovered in 1978. The New York Times reported recently that soil tests revealed toxic vapors emanating into Greenpoint's homes and businesses. "This is one of the worst environmental disasters in the nation, larger than the Exxon Valdez [by about 6 million gallons] and slower in the cleanup," said New York Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo. "It is ExxonMobil's oil that remains under the homes and businesses. And it is ExxonMobil that has dragged its feet and done as little as possible to address the dangers that it created." Cuomo is also threatening suit over the release of millions of gallons of carcinogenic, benzene-laced water into Newton Creek (separating Queens from Brooklyn) – half-processed water from Exxon's own previously court-ordered cleanup. Famed eco-crusader Erin Brockovich has notably aided residents' legal fight. Cuomo's Feb. 8 notice sets 60- and 90-day deadlines for spill and creek cleanup compliance. – D.M.

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