"You know, I haven't had to listen to a single zoning case, and so by definition I may be having more fun right now." Former Austin Mayor Kirk Watson, now a state senator, on why he prefers the Lege to City Hall (see "On the Lege: Freshman Watson Thrives in Senate Environment")
Quote of the Week
Election highlights: Sam Guzman is the new District 2 trustee for the Austin Independent School District (see below), Amy "Ice Creams" Simmons is a new West Lake Hills City Council member, and Hays Co. voters rejected a $172 million road-bond proposal, sending the Commissioners Court back to the drawing board. (See more election results here.)
City Council meets today (Thursday), taking up the pending new taxi franchise for the third time, and warming up for budget review. See "Beside the Point."
Wal-Mart Corp. announced it would "shrink" its planned Northcross store below a threshold requiring a higher traffic count but only if neighborhood groups represented by Responsible Growth for Northcross withdraw any threat to sue the developers or the city. RG4N plans a City Hall protest today.
At the Capitol, tempers flared in the Senate Tuesday over a GOP push for a "Voter ID" bill opposed by all 11 Democrats. John Whitmire, D-Houston, exploded in anger when Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst tried to force a quick vote while a couple of Dems were off the floor when calm was restored, an ill Sen. Carlos Uresti arrived just in time to be the crucial 11th vote to block the bill.
The city named eight people this week who will travel in two groups to visit the communities where four finalists for the job of Austin police chief have previously worked. City spokesman Gene Acuña said City Manager Toby Futrell will travel with Austin Police Association President Jim Beck, Police Monitor Cliff Brown, and Sylvia Gonzalez of city human resources to Los Angeles to vet finalist Art Acevedo, a chief with the California Highway Patrol; and to Milwaukee, where Richard Reinke was an assistant chief before leaving to take the chief's job in the Florida resort town of Marco Island. Assistant city managers Mike McDonald and Rudy Garza, police union Vice President George Vanderhule, and human resources' Sonya Alexander-Harry will travel to El Paso to visit with those familiar with the work of its chief, Richard Wiles; and to Chattanooga, Tenn., where Jimmie Dotson was chief before moving to the Woodlands and becoming a law-enforcement consultant. Acuña said the teams will travel at the end of May, and that public forums in Austin with all five finalists including Acting APD Chief Cathy Ellison should take place in mid-June. Jordan Smith
On a related note, Acting Chief Cathy Ellison has named Acting Assistant Chief Leo Enriquez to take on that position permanently. Enriquez, a 25-year APD veteran, was commander of the Northwest Area Command before being appointed acting AC in January to replace former AC Charlie Ortiz. Enriquez oversees the patrol operations across the city's nine area commands. J.S.
A Downtown Commission subcommittee met over lunch last week to tweak its recommendations on the Capitol view corridors. None of the changes were significant; most of the work was intended to clarify and expand on recommendations and to justify why a cost-benefits analysis would be difficult to quantify on the view corridors. The members also included a fuller disclosure of any conflicts of interest in property ownership. Despite recent harsh criticism from the Heritage Society of Austin, the commission continues to push forward with their list of recommended changes and adjustments. "Why do we continue impeding development in order to help preserve corridors that are marginal?" asked Jeb Boyt, chair of the commission Kimberly Reeves
The University of Texas fired Financial Aid Director Larry Burt Monday after an official investigation found his stock ownership in a student lender violated university policy. In January 2001, Burt bought 800 shares in the predecessor to Education Lending Group. This did not constitute a conflict of interest, he said, because at the time, the company was a loan consolidator, not a full-service lender. However, the company became a full-service lender through its subsidiary Student Loan Xpress later that year in November, and one month later Burt purchased an additional 1,500 shares in a private cash transaction with a friend. The timing of the purchase raised red flags for investigators, especially in light of the fact that Burt placed Student Loan Xpress on UT's preferred lenders list a few months later, where it occupied the top spot over five years, despite being a new, untested company. While the report found no direct evidence of an explicit quid pro quo, the "totality of the circumstances" created an appearance of impropriety. Burt received a letter from the friend who arranged the purchase stating that the stocks were a gift, which seemingly contradicts his claim that he paid for the stocks in cash. Later it was confirmed that Burt did pay $1 per share for the stocks, though it's unclear whether he received a special price, which would amount to an unethical gift. The report went on to detail how there was a concentration of power in Burt's hands, and the criteria he used to select preferred lenders was subjective at best, and entirely arbitrary at worst. It was also found that those working under Burt lacked a guiding knowledge of ethics and conflicts of interest. The university plans to revamp its policies and procedures in the scandal's aftermath. Charles Sorber, a former UT administrator, agreed to come out of retirement to take Burt's spot until a replacement is found. Justin Ward
Mayor Will Wynn presented the city of Austin's Green Building program as a model for mayors around the nation and the world, at the C40 Large Cities Climate Summit in New York on Wednesday. His message to his mayoral brethren: Metro economies can thrive economically and have strong environmental policies at the same time just look at vibrant, fast-growing Austin. The city's Green Building program, which promotes energy efficiency and other environmental standards, now is being strengthened under the Austin Climate Protection Plan. Wynn also is meeting with corporate leaders at the summit to discuss climate protection. He believes Austin can and must be a pivotal city in affecting meaningful climate change by positive example as the state capital of "the most polluting state in the most polluting country in the world." Such a distinction! Katherine Gregor
Speaking of the mayor, Wynn bragged to us recently that the electricity bill for his 2,476-square-foot Downtown condo was just $24.11 in March his lowest since making a New Years' resolution to redouble efforts to reduce his personal energy consumption. Of course, his daughters are complaining a little about having to brush their teeth by candlelight but hey, way to set an example. K.G.
Local businessman Sam Guzman won the District 2 seat on the AISD board on Saturday, taking over twice as many votes as the three other candidates combined 68%, with Libertarian Gary Johnson a distant second with 16%. In a majority Latino district, the key to Guzman's blowout may have been the backing he had from some of the titans in the local Hispanic community, including former state Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos and former mayor Gus Garcia, along with the blessing of Education Austin. Guzman will serve the rest of the term of Rudy Montoya, who resigned in December to focus on his career. Guzman has a long record of involvement with the district, sits on the board of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, and before settling into semi-retirement was on the state Health and Human Services Commission. Guzman said his priorities are to close the achievement gap and create a space for community involvement. The position will go up for election again this time next year, when the current term expires. J.W.
The AISD board of trustees is considering a Strategic Compensation Initiative, which would provide incentive pay for teachers at struggling schools. The plan would pay novice teachers more to go to high-needs schools and even more to stay for more than three years, pay experienced teachers more to mentor other teachers, reward principals and teachers for improving TAKS scores, and provide teachers with professional development training. The plan could be in place in as many as nine schools next year, to be chosen according to the highest need. The trustees will vote whether to approve the plan on May 29. Michael May
In other board news, trustees approved a number of new principals and administrators on Monday. Donna Houser will be principal of Anderson High. She is currently the principal of Murchison Middle School, and before that was an assistant principal at Bowie High. Rene Sanchez, who's been acting as principal of the Liberal Arts and Science Academy at LBJ High, will officially receive the post next school year. Candace Hughes will take over at Covington Middle School; she's the principal at Llano Junior High, and has taught in Killeen, Belton, and Salado ISDs. Blaine Helwig, named principal of Graham Elementary, is currently program supervisor for the associate superintendent of north elementary schools at AISD. Glenn Nolly will remain as acting associate superintendent for high schools, where he has been since 2006. M.M.
Also, AISD has come up with a new Strategic Education Plan for Targeted Campuses, which outlines a process for helping schools that have fallen behind in the state or federal accountability systems. The plan includes bringing in AISD officials to do classroom monitoring, team-building retreats for school staff, school-wide meetings to discuss best practices, hiring more experienced teachers, and other elements. It also outlines a three-tiered process for dealing with individual students who are struggling in class, and for those who've become disruptive including intensive individual instruction, summer school, problem solving with students and families, and other interventions. Implementation is expected next school year. M.M.
The city of Webberville announced last week that it would ante up its offer to buy an adjacent 2,800-acre Austin Energy-owned tract of land based on concerns that the city of Austin plans to open a new regional landfill there. The issue is tied to ongoing foulness surrounding attempts by Waste Management Inc. and BFI to expand their problematic, decades-old, and neighbor-loathed twin Northeast Travis Co. landfills; closure discussions involved locating a new site. Webberville's Mayor Hector Gonzales, flanked by state Rep. Dawnna Dukes and Travis Co. Commissioner Ron Davis, argued for the sale, citing numerous natural and historical features, as well as Webberville's desire to redevelop the property as a mixed-use neighborhood. Webberville is offering $21.6 million, reportedly three times the appraised value. The city of Austin has other ideas, however, as this week's council agenda includes a resolution affirming city intent to "maintain ownership of the land," as well as directing the city manager to "investigate the feasibility of using the property to provide public services and benefits." Another resolution opposes the Northeast landfill expansions and calls for "permanent closure and the enforcement of operating standards." Waste policy watchdog Robin Schneider, of Texas Campaign for the Environment, says the city should get serious about its 2040 Zero Waste goal, which was introduced in 2005. Daniel Mottola
Beyond City Limits
The Round Rock City Council is mulling its options for addressing future transportation needs, which could include finally joining Capital Metro's service district, and/or agreeing to participate in the Austin-San Antonio Intermunicipal Commuter Rail District, which continues to push a 110-mile commuter route on existing rail line from Georgetown to San Antonio. The Rail District has expressed concern that Round Rock will choose one endeavor over the other, but Tom Word, Round Rock's public works director, said it's not an either-or decision. "There are many options that the council will need to weigh, and all of them cost money," he said. "So we will attempt to share information about the options." A presentation to council is scheduled for May 24. K.R.
If you live in Hays County, this is your lucky smoke-free day: Thanks to a charitable donation by the Wayne Wright Lawyers law firm, every home in the county is eligible to receive a free smoke alarm. That's right free. The lawyers have donated 1,500 alarms to date, as part of their Smoke Alarms in Every Home campaign, and will donate more, in order to make sure a working alarm is installed in every home. The campaign was launched in December with the San Antonio Fire Department, after nine people there including Democratic state Sen. Frank Madla died from fires in homes without smoke alarms. In just five months, the campaign has forged partnerships with 16 Texas fire departments and has committed to donating more than 32,000 alarms, according to a press release. To arrange for installation of a free smoke alarm, call Wayne Wright Lawyers at 444-0400. J.S.
Hours before he was set to die May 10, for a 1986 murder in San Antonio, condemned killer Jose Moreno received a stay of execution. Moreno, who had just turned 18 at the time of the crime, was convicted and sentenced to death for the kidnapping and murder of San Antonio college student John Cruz. His life was spared last week, after the Court of Criminal Appeals agreed to rehear an earlier appeal focused on his contention that as in three other Texas death row cases overturned earlier this month by the U.S. Supreme Court the jury considering his case was unable to properly vet mitigating evidence that could have changed his sentencing's outcome. J.S.
Voters in Farmers Branch, just north of Dallas, went to the polls Saturday and made their city the first one in the nation to prohibit landlords from renting to most undocumented immigrants. The measure passed by a wide margin across the city, 68-32%. Already, the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund and the American Civil Liberties Union have filed a temporary restraining order in U.S. District Court to stop the ordinance, arguing that it isn't local businesses' place to enforce federal policy. More than a third of Farmers Branch's residents are Latino. The ordinance is expected to take effect May 22. For more immigration-related news, see "Immigration News." K.R.