Naked City

Naked City


Quote of the Week

"The bill says those that are married live longer. It's not really true. It just seems longer." – Rep. Pat Haggerty, R-El Paso, during a debate on Rep. Warren Chisum's bill that would require couples applying for a marriage license to take a marriage class


Headlines

• State flags are lowered and the UT tower darkened in memory of the 32 people slain Monday at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, Va.

• City Council meets today (Thursday) with the second reading of the contentious taxi franchise award on the agenda (see below) and a new initiative by Lee Leffingwell to research what, if anything, the city can do about those pesky plastic bags that consume precious hydrocarbons and litter the landscape (see "Beside the Point").

• Austin writer Lawrence Wright won a Pulitzer Prize for The Looming Tower, his study of the origins and history of al Qaeda; El Paso novelist Cormac McCarthy picked one up for The Road, and Fort Worth-born free-jazz pioneer and musical giant Ornette Coleman won a Pulitzer for his 2005 concert recording, Sound Grammar.

• The Senate approved its version of Texas' biennial budget last week, despite objections from a handful of Democrats (notably El Paso's Eliot Shapleigh) that it badly underfunds social programs in order to grant tax cuts to the wealthiest Texans, and a declaration from Houston Republican Dan Patrick that he could have cut $3 billion without even trying. So he didn't.


Naked City

• The Residential Design Compatibility Commission heard its first two cases last week. The new commission, created in the passage of the McMansions ordinance, will be reviewing residential construction permits for builders looking for variances for additional floor space and building massing requirements. The first cases: a third-floor addition to a house on Oakland Avenue and enclosing a carport and utility room in a house on Glendale Place. During citizens' comments, neighborhood activist Jeff Jack warned that the commission needs to recognize that developers will flout the ordinance. As they say, it's easier to ask for forgiveness – building it and then seeking a permit – than for permission. – Kimberly Reeves

The White Rose Society, a student organization that promotes Holocaust and genocide awareness, passed out white roses on the UT campus on April 12 to mark Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day). The organization formed in 2005 to promote diversity and tolerance; it takes its name from the White Rose, a nonviolent, secular resistance movement in Nazi Germany that was initiated by students at Munich University. See <a href=http://www.thewhiterosesociety.org/ target=blank><b>www.thewhiterosesociety.org</b></a> for more info.
The White Rose Society, a student organization that promotes Holocaust and genocide awareness, passed out white roses on the UT campus on April 12 to mark Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day). The organization formed in 2005 to promote diversity and tolerance; it takes its name from the White Rose, a nonviolent, secular resistance movement in Nazi Germany that was initiated by students at Munich University. See www.thewhiterosesociety.org for more info. (Photo By Jana Birchum)

• In other city business, the battle over who controls Austin's newest taxi franchise took an unexpected turn Friday the 13th, as Austin Cab Company sued Solomon Kassa, whose Lone Star Cab Company was awarded the franchise on first reading. The petition from Austin Cab – an established company, not vying for the franchise or new permits – deals with the time Kassa spent in the company's employment, and statements he made "as recently as" the April 5 City Council franchise hearing. While Kassa focused on his proposal's merits at council, his attorney Doug Young described how Kassa was fired soon after bringing his business plan to the Urban Transportation Commission, saying "It's not safe for Lone Star drivers to come and advocate for Lone Star today." Austin Cab's suit details Kassa's supposed reluctance to pay a $1,000 cab deposit in one chunk – instead depositing $10 weekly into the fund, garnering only $197.25 over eight months – seemingly trying to paint Kassa as a spendthrift. The petition says this was the reason for Kassa's firing, not that Austin Cab got wind of Kassa's plans to start his own company. Austin Cab cites another "false statement" – that Austin Cab fired driver/operators who "vocalized support for Mr. Kassa or any competing cab company." Reached for comment, Kassa was surprised but said he doesn't anticipate the suit hurting his chances; "Obviously, we're going to countersue." Council is scheduled to approve the franchise on second reading today. – Wells Dunbar

• Also in city news, the Economic Growth and Redevelopment Services office's Cultural Arts Division is reminding all applicants that the application deadline for cultural-arts funding is right around the corner. The CAD awards "cultural contracts" to arts organizations working within the community; the last day for applications is May 1. For more information, visit www.cityofaustin.org/culturalcontracts. – W.D.

• Because 46-year-old Russell Weatherford died from injuries related to an incident that happened 24 years ago, the Austin Police Department says it's investigating Weatherford's April 5 death as a homicide. On March 24, 1983, patrol officers answered a disturbance call on Bell Avenue in Northwest Austin where they found Weatherford, who was taken to Brackenridge Hospital with "life threatening" injuries. He died earlier this month as a result of injuries sustained in the 1983 assault. APD homicide detectives are investigating the case and ask anyone with information to call the homicide tip line at 477-3588 or Crime Stoppers at 472-8477. – Jordan Smith

• United Ways of Texas will grant $350,000 in 2008 to raise graduation rates and college readiness at high schools across Texas. The organization is partnering with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has spearheaded a nationwide effort to improve high schools and has invested heavily in Austin's high school redesign effort. The money from United Ways will go toward efforts to reach out to parents, teachers, businesses, and nonprofit organizations that have a stake in improving local public education. "It is not only important for the youth of our state who deserve the opportunity to reach their full potential as productive citizens," said United Ways of Texas board member David Langston, "but it is vital to the future of a growing Texas economy." For more information, contact project director Molly Wofford at 372-9207 or molly.wofford@uwtexas.org. – Michael May

Friends, family, generations of dignitaries, and a mariachi band said
farewell to Emma Barrientos (wife of retired state Sen. Gonzalo
Barrientos) on Friday, April 13, at the AFL-CIO hall. Among the guests
paying respects were former Travis Co. Commissioner Karen Sonleitner
(above right). Barrientos is retiring after 30 years of service in a
wide range of positions at the county, although her most current
supervisor, Constable Bruce Elfant, said she told him she expected to
return (as a volunteer consultant) already this week. “I told her,
that’s not how retirement works,” Elfant said with a laugh. “You’re
supposed to take a rest and enjoy yourself. But I don’t know what I’m
going to do without her,” he continued. “She’s been a mentor and a
conscience to me, for many years, and I will miss her dearly.”
Friends, family, generations of dignitaries, and a mariachi band said farewell to Emma Barrientos (wife of retired state Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos) on Friday, April 13, at the AFL-CIO hall. Among the guests paying respects were former Travis Co. Commissioner Karen Sonleitner (above right). Barrientos is retiring after 30 years of service in a wide range of positions at the county, although her most current supervisor, Constable Bruce Elfant, said she told him she expected to return (as a volunteer consultant) already this week. “I told her, that’s not how retirement works,” Elfant said with a laugh. “You’re supposed to take a rest and enjoy yourself. But I don’t know what I’m going to do without her,” he continued. “She’s been a mentor and a conscience to me, for many years, and I will miss her dearly.” (Photo By John Anderson)

Lee Leffingwell's bid to cut Austin's water usage 10% in 10 years has won him notice outside the city; the Texas section of the American Water Works Association has named the City Council member Conservationist of the Year. The conservation measures, born of Leffingwell's Water Conservation Task Force, cover both industrial and home water usage, including measures like retrofitting inefficient toilets and requiring efficient irrigation systems and soil depth standards. "These measures will not only help Austin reduce its peak water demand but will be used by cities around the country as templates for water-conservation ordinances in the future," said Chris Brown, the AWWA's Conservation and Reuse Division chair, in a press release. The association honored Leffingwell at its annual meeting in Fort Worth last Thursday. The Water Conservation Task Force's findings are slated to come before council for approval May 3. – W.D.

• You may have missed the city-sponsored compact florescent lightbulb giveaway at City Hall and several area HEB's last weekend, but don't despair: Just in time for Earth Day, Austin Energy is offering $2 and $4 coupons to anyone making the CFL switch. Growing in popularity, CFLs last several times longer than their incandescent cousins and use 70% less energy – saving users more than $20 per bulb used. To download the coupon and see a list of participating retailers, visit www.cityofaustin.org/environmental and click on "light bulbs." – W.D.

• In other enviro-related news, Earth Day is this weekend, and with the latest grim dispatch from the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change offering hope that global warming's worst effects can be dodged if we each do something to live less energy intensively, Austin's Earth Day festivities offer fun, outdoor, eco-friendly, and educational ways to act and celebrate. Austin Green Art, a nonprofit promoting sustainability awareness through art, hosts the second annual Earth Day celebration and Green Scene Scavenger Hunt from 9am to 9pm Saturday at Republic Square Park on Fourth and Guadalupe. Green Scene is Austin's first citywide scavenger hunt designed to promote healthy, sustainable life. Participants (who are strongly urged to don costumes) are encouraged to explore the city by bike, bus, and on foot. A $500 cash prize will be awarded, along with costume prizes and other goodies. The festivities also include an extended Austin Farmers' Market and the Solar Jam, featuring an array of artists performing on an entirely solar-powered stage. Admission is free from 9am to 4pm; the Scavenger Hunt and Solar Jam are $10 each, but music is free to scavenger hunters. For more info, see www.austinearthday.com. – Daniel Mottola

• Also on Saturday, Keep Austin Beautiful is holding its Clean Sweep Citywide Volunteer Cleanup, including the first-ever rock-climbing cleanup of cliffs below the 360 Bridge. Additional cleanups will focus on Austin streets, parks, schools, and other public spaces – more than 100 different projects across town in all. Recent rains have washed trash and debris (like tons of friggin' plastic grocery bags) into Austin's creeks and Town Lake, so waterways, including Town Lake and 70 different creeks, are a major focus. Austin Green Art will aid volunteers in constructing a giant snake sculpture made from trash collected during the cleanup. For Clean Sweep info, e-mail volunteer@keepaustinbeautiful.org or call KAB at 391-0622. – D.M.

• On a semirelated note, guess what's fast approaching. Ozone season! That wonderful time of the year when airborne pollutants react with the hot sun to irritate your fragile respiratory system with smog. While most people associate cars, trucks, and heavy industry with ozone pollution, the EPA says lawn mowers account for up to 10% of urban pollution, including ground-level ozone. In addition to annoying late sleepers, mowers spew massive quantities of climate-changing carbon dioxide and contribute to water pollution through oil and gas spillage. The solution: electric lawn mowers, which are now cost-competitive with gassers, come in cordless models, and virtually eliminate maintenance and fuel costs. Two upcoming events are offering discounted electrified blade-busters. On Saturday, April 28, from 8:30am-2:30pm, the Home Depot at 3600 S. I-35 (exit Woodward) will discount electric mowers from $30 to $65, but an old gas mower must be turned in to get the discount (for more info, see www.cmpbs.org/electriclawnmower). Also, in partnership with the Clean Air Force of Central Texas, two other Home Depots will discount various electric mowers by 20%: the Sunset Valley Home Depot on May 5 from 9am-3pm and the Arbor Walk location on May 12 during the same hours. To receive a discount at these two locations, you must RSVP to CAF; see www.cleanairforce.org for details. – D.M.


Beyond City Limits

• The nationwide pet-food-contamination scare claimed two victims at the Lago Vista PAWS animal shelter earlier this month, causing shelter staff to keep a close watch on cats and dogs who may have eaten contaminated food, said shelter Vice President Janet Cain. A week after pet-food manufacturers began recalling millions of cans and pouches of food containing a contaminated form of wheat gluten, two of the shelter's longtime residents – a pair of cats named Dexter and Aziza – died of kidney failure. As a no-kill shelter, PAWS generally does everything it can to save animals with life-threatening medical problems, Cain said. But she said the shelter has little reserve money for emergencies of this magnitude, and the incident is straining an already tight budget for the shelter, which is at three times its capacity. As new brands continue to be added to the recall list daily, the shelter staff is playing it safe by not using any brands containing wheat gluten. Staff members are also testing animals and watching for rapid weight loss, a warning sign of kidney failure. Cain said she hopes the ordeal doesn't stop people from donating food in the future. "It's important for the public to know that they're not to blame for donating food that has been recalled. It's hard not to feel guilty," she said. – Justin Ward

On an extremely breezy Saturday afternoon that could have generated
a whole lot of wind power, Austin state Rep. Mark Strama and Mayor Will
Wynn were among the speakers at Step It Up, a statewide rally by several
environmental groups to encourage the Texas Legislature to tackle the
problems posed by global climate change. The Austin version of the rally
was held on the south steps of the Capitol. This year, Wynn proposed the
Austin Climate Protection Plan, considered one of the most ambitious
efforts by any American city to reduce its contribution to the world
climate problem. Strama has proposed three bills addressing global
warming: House Bill 1282, which would promote the use of more renewable
energy in Texas; HB 3431, to encourage sequestration of carbon dioxide;
and HB 344, to improve controls on motor-vehicle emissions. All three
have been left pending in committee.
On an extremely breezy Saturday afternoon that could have generated a whole lot of wind power, Austin state Rep. Mark Strama and Mayor Will Wynn were among the speakers at Step It Up, a statewide rally by several environmental groups to encourage the Texas Legislature to tackle the problems posed by global climate change. The Austin version of the rally was held on the south steps of the Capitol. This year, Wynn proposed the Austin Climate Protection Plan, considered one of the most ambitious efforts by any American city to reduce its contribution to the world climate problem. Strama has proposed three bills addressing global warming: House Bill 1282, which would promote the use of more renewable energy in Texas; HB 3431, to encourage sequestration of carbon dioxide; and HB 344, to improve controls on motor-vehicle emissions. All three have been left pending in committee. (Photo By Jana Birchum)

Texas State University officials are moving forward with plans to create the nation's third "body farm," a facility dedicated to the study of human decomposition. The farm, planned for the TSU horticulture center, north of the San Marcos airport on Highway 21, allows students and police a way to study decomposition under a variety of conditions – like, say, buried in shallow ground or in the trunk of a car – as a means to better understand time and manner of death. According to the San Antonio Express-News, the proposed facility has already earned the support of local law-enforcement agencies but has sparked some concern from neighbors worried that the facility might smell, for example, or might pose a risk to public health. TSU anthropology professor Jerry Melbye told the paper the farm would pose no health risk and said the university would take measures to keep wild animals out of the facility. TSU has six bodies on hand and ready for study, and additional bodies will be acquired through a donor program. The school has reportedly set aside $250,000 for construction at the facility – a portion earmarked to build a razor-wire fence – set to begin this summer. – J.S.

• A team of forecasters with Colorado State University's Tropical Meteorology Project has predicted a "very active" Atlantic hurricane season this year – a total of 17 named storms, with nine becoming hurricanes and five becoming intense hurricanes. According to the Associated Press, lead forecaster William Gray said earlier this month, "there is a 74% probability of a major hurricane hitting the U.S. coast." Hold your hissies and heart attacks, however. Last year the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicted a 75% chance of an "above-normal" season – "a seasonal total of 12-15 named storms, with 7-9 becoming hurricanes, and 3-4 becoming major hurricanes." Instead, the six-month season ended with nine tropical storms, five of which became hurricanes and none of which hit the U.S. Gray's team attributed the discrepancy to "a late El Nino that altered oceanic conditions," the AP reports, also noting, "The devastating 2005 season had 28 named storms, 15 of them hurricanes. Four of those hurricanes hit the U.S. coast, the worst among them Katrina, which devastated New Orleans and leveled parts of the Gulf Coast." For the full 2007 forecast, see hurricane.atmos.colostate.edu/Forecasts. – Cheryl Smith

  • More of the Story

  • Round Rock Drops Charges Against Immigration Demo Students

    City Council saves face, and possibly a lot of money, by voting to drop misdemeanor charges against 70 students involved in pro-immigration demonstrations last spring

    Development on the Down Low?

    General Land Office responds to last week's coverage of House Bill 699, a bill that expands office's ability to keep information about development deals confidential
  • MoPac Expansion Update

    Sound walls trumped new lanes at open house meetings to take initial look at proposed plans to expand MoPac from Parmer Lane down to Town Lake

    Happenings

    April 19-26

    Judge Condemns Conditions at Taylor Detention Center

    U.S. District Court Judge Sam Sparks denounces conditions at T. Don Hutto Family Detention Center, ruling finds American Civil Liberties Union "highly likely" to prevail in lawsuits filed on behalf of minors housed at facility

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