"Racism is racism; xenophobia is xenophobia. It's too bad that we're going to see it enacted on the House floor again." Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, on the passage of a bill requiring a photo ID to vote. Republicans say it will prevent voting fraud; Democrats say it will disenfranchise many minorities, seniors, and the poor.
Quote of the Week
Early voting begins Monday, April 30, for the May 12 special election. On the ballot in Travis County: a constitutional amendment proposition, an AISD District 2 seat, and various local officials and bond initiatives. For details, see the Chronicle Endorsements.
Ten days of planned demonstrations against the war by members of Campus Antiwar Movement to End the Occupations began Wednesday, culminating in the arrest of two protesters at the U.S. Army Recruiting Office at Dobie Mall. See "Military Recruitment Protesters Arrested" for more on this story.
Following their annual performance review, the Austin Independent School District's board of trustees voted 7-1 to extend Superintendent Pat Forgione's contract another year, through June 2011.
A contentious and largely partisan state House debate ended Monday with passage of House Bill 218, the "Voter ID" bill that would require photo IDs or alternative identification of all voters on election day. Democrats hope to stop the bill in the Senate but anticipate parliamentary moves to enable passage of this national Republican priority. See "House: Squeeze the (Dem) Voters" for more on this story.
On April 24, police charged 23-year-old Jarel Arteace Lamar with attempted capital murder in connection with a 16-hour incident that began Sunday evening with a call to police about a "disturbance with a gun" at 6220 Hyside in Northeast Austin. Two men were exiting the house when Cpl. Michael Barger arrived on the scene. He "issued commands" at the two men to stop one complied, but Lamar pulled a gun and fired at Barger (and missed) several times. Barger returned fire, striking Lamar in the leg before Lamar fled, locking himself in a duplex on Edgedale Drive. The Austin Police Department's Special Weapons and Tactics unit was called to the scene (and, eventually, the Travis County Sheriff's Office SWAT team was called to assist), and negotiators spent the next 15 hours talking with Lamar. Around 10am Monday, Lamar let an unidentified female leave the duplex. Negotiators continued talking with Lamar, until he set the house on fire. With the Austin Fire Department at the ready, police used tear gas to force Lamar from the house, shot him with a Taser, and took him into custody at 11:27am. He was treated for minor injuries at Brackenridge Hospital before being booked into jail. Attempted capital murder is a first-degree felony, punishable by up to life in prison. Fourteen-year APD veteran Barger has been placed on restricted duty, pending the outcome of an investigation into the incident, standard procedure in any officer-involved shooting. Jordan Smith
The Webb Middle School task force presented its plan to improve the struggling school at a community forum this week. The improvement plan provides dozens of recommendations, everything from using new technology in the classrooms to offering incentives to retain qualified teachers. Science teacher Gerald Howard, who teaches in the English Language Learners Academy, said the plan would call for Webb to work closer with its feeder elementary schools. "Many of our kids took the [Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills] test in Spanish in elementary school," he says. "So they're not ready when they must take the test in English here at Webb. We need to greatly expand the programs for English learners here and see if we can find ways to work with the elementary school teachers as well." Parents and community members are now reviewing the plan before it is presented to the AISD board in mid-May. Michael May
Participants in a public hearing slated for 11am Saturday, April 28, in E2.028 of the state Capitol, are expected to rally support for House Concurrent Resolution 64, which calls for alternatives to jailing immigrant children. The resolution specifically censures T. Don Hutto Residential Center in Taylor, a joint venture of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Williamson County, and Corrections Corporation of America. The resolution "has lain dormant since February," according to Jane Chamberlain, a member of the activist group Free the Children. The issue of detaining children is hardly obscure by now, for after detainees filed federal lawsuits (some still pending), an international outrage ensued. The facility now languishes in a veritable hall of infamy as public scrutiny has expanded its focus to the role corporate interest has played in imprisoning children. Chamberlain says the hearing will cover "the abuses of the system of immigrant detention and the improper aggrandizement of private corporations." Filed by Reps. Eddie Rodriguez and Rafael Anchía, the resolution quotes government statistics that tally the policy's cost at $1.2 billion annually. In addition, research cited in the resolution claims detaining families does not deter illegal immigration. "Every possible alternative to family detention should be exhausted," the resolution states. For more Lege news, see p.18. Patricia J. Ruland
Zorica Vilotic was arrested April 20 on four charges of operating an illegal gambling operation at the Internet Cafe in Pflugerville, according to the Travis County Sheriff's Office. TCSO got a tip alleging the cafe was housing an "illegal casino styled business with eight-liner video gambling computer devices and/or slot machines," according to a probable-cause affidavit filed by senior Deputy Wayne Samson. Samson visited the cafe twice in March and twice paid $20 to play the video eight-liners (in all, he won $27), according to the affidavit. Samson says Vilotic told him that if he were to win more than $600, he would have to return multiple times for the payout in order to avoid detection by the Internal Revenue Service, she allegedly told him. Vilotic was booked on a $20,000 bond; each charge she faces is a class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in jail and/or a $4,000 fine. J.S.
City Council renewed a contract last week with KAZI 88.7FM, Austin's African-American community radio, to broadcast the council's weekly meetings, continuing a partnership that has lasted almost 10 years. KAZI's coverage begins at noon every Thursday meeting, starting with citizens communications and lasting until adjournment. It's part of the station's ongoing history of news broadcasting and civic involvement; aside from the soul, hip-hop, and R&B the station is known for, it also broadcasts Democracy Now! and other programs. "As a community and education radio station, KAZI is excited that we are being given the opportunity to expand our relationship with the City of Austin and to provide additional news coverage to the citizens of Austin," says KAZI's David Burrell in a press release. "With the current renovations and expansions that are under way KAZI is now ready and equipped to expand the services offered under our contract with the City of Austin." Wells Dunbar
Austin's public schools continue to show improvement in the number of Austin fifth-graders passing the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills test, or TAKS test; 79% of the 5,000 fifth-graders who took the test passed this year, up two percentage points from last year though still trailing the state average of 85%. Still, the scores show that Austin is steadily improving its test scores, despite the fact that the district is facing an increasing number of students from poor homes. The number of economically disadvantaged students districtwide is 61%, an increase of 8% from 2003. In that time, the scores of economically disadvantaged students have increased 21%. Despite the increase, 1,200 Austin students must still pass the TAKS test on May 15 to be promoted to sixth grade. M.M.
The National Merit Scholarship Corporation has released its national award-winners for this year, and 141 Austin seniors earned recognition for their performance on the Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test; these students are now eligible for scholarships to colleges across the country. Austin schools produced 33 National Merit Finalists, three National Merit Semifinalists, 77 National Merit Commended Students, 34 National Hispanic Scholars, and five National Achievement Scholars. "We congratulate these students on earning this national-level recognition," said Superintendent Pat Forgione, "and express our appreciation for the honor they have brought to their schools and to the Austin school district." M.M.
Austin Police are on the hunt for suspects in an April 21 robbery-murder of a young man who was walking with his father home from church. Gamaliel Jimenez Bohorquez, 18, was walking through a parking lot at 1101 Reinli around 10pm Saturday night, after leaving Austin Cornerstone Church, when he and his father, who was uninjured, were robbed by two men. Bohorquez and his father complied with the robbers' demands, police officials say, but Bohorquez was, nonetheless, shot. Police say the suspects are described as a black man between 22 and 25 years old, with short hair and medium complexion, and a Hispanic male also in his early 20s. They left the scene in a white vehicle, say police, who ask anyone with information about the incident to call the homicide tip line at 477-3588 or Crime Stoppers at 472-8477. J.S.
Police are investigating a bomb threat at the Texas School for the Deaf, made around 2am on April 19. The school got a telephone threat from an unknown person, prompting school officials to evacuate two student dormitories while they searched the campus for suspicious "devices or packages." Nothing was found, the students were allowed to return to their dorms, and police are now searching for the caller. J.S.
One of Fidel Castro's most vocal critics in the U.S. his own daughter will be in Austin next week conducting research for a book she's writing on Cuban exile and Austin resident Carlos Lavernia, who in 1984 was wrongly convicted of sexual assault and sentenced to 99 years in prison. Alina Fernandez, now a CNN commentator and radio personality, will appear at Cuba Libre, 409 Colorado, from 5 to 6:30pm Saturday. Lavernia spent nearly 16 years in prison before a DNA test determined he was not the notorious "Barton Creek rapist" but rather the victim of a case of mistaken identity. He had arrived in the U.S. in 1980 as part of the Mariel boat lift from Cuba. Freedom did not come easily for him; even after being cleared of sexual assault, he spent the next three years in the Travis County Jail as his lawyers fought federal deportation efforts. He eventually obtained legal residency here, as well as a $435,000 judgment on a wrongful-conviction lawsuit he had filed against the state. Fernandez's Austin visit is co-sponsored by the local chapter of the National Association of Latino Independent Producers and Austin-based Floppy King Productions LLC. Amy Smith
Austin's Rhizome Collective, a consensus-run center for urban sustainability headquartered in East Austin, has just officially completed its cleanup efforts at a nearby brownfield site (one that's deemed too contaminated for normal use) in the Montopolis neighborhood, with the help of a $200,000 Environmental Protection Agency grant. The 9.8-acre site, bordered on three sides by the Colorado River Park, was a landfill from 1967 to 1970 and an illegal dump for another estimated 15 years. With the aide of a veggie-oil-powered tractor, Rhizome removed 680 tires, 10 tons of trash, and 31.6 tons of metal (recycled locally), as the group shaped its dream of making the property an environmental justice park and urban green space. The mountainous hillside dump site of construction refuse, roofing waste, and scrap wood all wound together with tangled rebar had to be cut free using oxygen-acetylene torches. All that remains now are rock-shaped concrete scraps, many of which were used to line a sprawling raised-bed garden on the site. Other points of interest: rainwater catching for irrigation, grease filtration, about a dozen chickens, a handmade shower and accompanying solar water heater fashioned from discarded refrigerator and water-heater parts, and innovative clusters of bio-remediating aquatic plants, tethered to rafts of recycled soda bottles afloat in the site's low-lying pond. For more info, see www.rhizomecollective.org. Daniel Mottola
Local nonprofits worked to distribute 1,000 compact fluorescent lightbulbs on Earth Day, many destined for needy Austin families. The Gift of Light event, originating at University Presbyterian Church, sought in part to benefit Micah 6, (www.micah6austin.org) a coalition of 12 UT-area churches that operates a food pantry (behind University Baptist Church near 22nd and Guadalupe), which serves more than 200 families each week on Thursday evenings and Saturday mornings. Micah 6 visitors will receive packages of eight CFL bulbs. "Too often the environmental ministry is only available to those who can afford it," said Bee Morehead of Texas Interfaith Power & Light (www.txipl.org), a nonprofit religious education group that participated. "Providing CFLs to families who need assistance gives them dignity, empowers them to help care for God's creation, and be part of the environmental discussion." If every U.S. home replaced one lightbulb with a CFL, the country could light 2.5 million homes for a year with the savings and prevent 800,000 cars' worth of greenhouse-gas emissions, according to the EPA. D.M.
The House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee heard testimony from Rep. Elliott Naishtat, D-Austin, on his proposal to ask voters to decide whether to grant the governor the power to impose a moratorium on executions. Even supporters of capital punishment realize the system has flaws, Naishtat told the committee, which called the proposed constitutional amendment, HJR 23, up for a hearing after 10pm Tuesday night. Under current law, the Texas governor is powerless to halt executions a power granted to governors in most states. Indeed, since Naishtat first proposed the amendment in 2001, several governors including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush have put a hold on executions in order to investigate alleged problems with the death penalty. Dallas Democrat Terri Hodge praised Naishtat for his "courage" in bringing the measure, noting that since reinstatement of the death penalty in 1972, more than 200 inmates have come off Texas' death row including eight who were freed on grounds of actual innocence. Naishtat reminded the committee that a vote for HJR 23 is not a vote for a moratorium. Rather, lawmakers would simply be "voting to give [your] constituents" the chance to decide whether the governor should have that power. When asked why the legislation has failed in the past, Naishtat said he could only speculate. Perhaps it's easier for the governor to turn away calls for a moratorium by saying he doesn't have the power and, thus, his "hands are tied," Naishtat pondered aloud. "I assume the sitting governor doesn't want that authority." Otherwise, he said, "I'm clueless." The measure was left pending in committee. For more Lege news, see On the Lege." J.S.