"I knew we had a speaker. I didn't know we had a dictator." State Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, when Speaker Tom Craddick refused to recognize a motion to declare the speaker chair vacated
Quote of the Week
Continuing heavy rain mostly spared Austin but caused disastrous flooding north and west of Travis County, leaving several people dead and much damage across Central Texas.
The 80th Legislature managed to stumble to a fractured conclusion, less about lawmaking than the extraordinary battle over Speaker Tom Craddick, who last week declared his authority "absolute" in order to block any attempt by House members to unseat him. See "Point Austin" and "On the Lege."
The U.S. Congress capitulated to the Bush administration veto and bullying and approved another $142 billion for the war on Iraq, no strings attached. Disheartened anti-war activists condemned the continued occupation, and anti-war mom Cindy Sheehan announced her "retirement" from the movement in order to rediscover her life, writing in part, "This system forcefully resists being helped and eats up the people who try to help it. I am getting out before it totally consumes me or any more people that I love."
City Council doesn't meet today (Thursday), but expect the postponed budget policy discussion on June 7 and continuing heat building meanwhile over the standoff between the proposed Northcross Wal-Mart development and the neighborhoods represented by Responsible Growth for Northcross.
In an odd coincidence, two notable city political figures passed away this week. On Monday, former City Council Member (1983-'90) Sally Shipman died of leukemia, and at press time, we received word that a journalist who covered her, Daryl Janes, also had died (cause as yet unknown). Janes co-published The Daryl Herald (1985-'87) with Daryl Slusher; both Daryls later wrote for The Austin Chronicle. Janes was employed by the Texas Comptroller's Office at the time of his death. For more on Shipman, see "Sally Shipman, R.I.P."
On Wednesday, detectives with the Austin Police Department "filed two counts of Assault with injury," a class A misdemeanor, against Christopher Arevalo, 19, in connection with a pair of assaults outside Barton Creek Square Mall on May 21, according to an APD press release. Bond for both counts was set at $30,000. In both cases, a man approached a person in the mall parking lot the first incident occurred just after 9:30pm near Sears and J.C. Penney, the second, almost an hour later, between Nordstrom and Macy's and "tried to engage them in a conversation," according APD. The victims tried to ignore him but were assaulted when they tried to walk away. Jordan Smith and Cheryl Smith
The Planning Commission is hearing that some neighborhoods are less than eager to finish the neighborhood-planning process, blaming it for creating more problems than solutions. That led to an extended discussion of the process, which has a 2010 deadline, this week at a PC work session. Ideas about why the process is less than successful vary on the commission, but members do seem unanimous in their opinion that the process needs both additional education and support, something that could be accomplished by either re-establishing a support office for the neighborhood plans or creating a position of neighborhood ombudsman with the city in order to assist neighborhood leaders during the implementation process. Kimberly Reeves
City Council has granted a 45-day extension to the period allowed for neighborhoods to either opt-in or opt-out specific properties from the incentives provided to developers under Austin's new vertical mixed-use zoning. However, neighborhood planning teams must notify the city in writing by June 4 to request the extension. Widespread confusion prompted the extension, along with neighborhood consternation, questions, and conflicted sentiments about VMU. The voluntary program for developers is intended to produce higher-quality projects (as opposed to, say, the usual cheap and ugly strip malls), and to keep density increases along major roads, away from the residential hearts of neighborhoods. VMU projects must meet higher design standards and include at least 10% affordable housing. Unfortunately, VMU has raised hackles and antideveloper sentiment across town. Folks worried about increased density, traffic, and gentrification have been urging their neighbors to "opt-out" of the VMU incentives, in part because they're not sure what they mean (a problem that points to insufficient communication by the city on the complex issue). In fact, Dan Heinzen of the Heritage Neighborhood Association points out that upon close questioning, even city staff and council aides in charge of VMU have been blurry on the details of the new ordinance like how easy it will be for property owners to contest neighborhood opt-out decisions. One source of concern, particularly in East Austin, has been how VMU fits into the city's other concurrent affordable-housing efforts. The topic will be discussed at two upcoming public events, led by city and county staff and Council Member Brewster McCracken: Monday, June 11, 6:30pm at Austin Energy Town Lake Center, 721 Barton Springs Rd., and Monday, June 18, 6:30pm at Conley-Guerrero Senior Activity Center, 808 Nile. Citizens with VMU questions can call 974-2256. Katherine Gregor
The Austin Humane Society, the city's nonprofit no-kill shelter and adoption center, reported May 24 that a dead bat found in a private dog exercise area at the North Austin facility has tested positive for rabies. That means that the 38 dogs exercised in that area on May 19, will need to be quarantined for up to 90 days. Shelter officials were told the dead bat presents a "very low risk" situation, but the shelter is taking all precautions, with guidance from public health authorities. With the quarantine in place, most dog adoption operations will be put on hold, although several puppies not exercised in the area will continue to be available for adoption. Not only will the quarantine affect adoption efforts and thus the shelter's finances it also means the shelter can take in fewer animals until the quarantine is lifted. Shelter officials are asking for monetary donations to help keep the shelter going and for interactive toys, peanut butter, and rawhide chews that can be used to help keep the quarantined canines active and engaged over the next weeks, since they will "not have the level of interaction that they typically do," advises an AHS e-mail. For more on the shelter, or to make donations, see www.austinhumanesociety.org or call 646-7387 x226. J.S.
Also regarding our four-legged friends, 100 emergency-response vehicles in Austin, including both ambulances and fire trucks, will soon be equipped with special oxygen masks for pets. On May 25, representatives of Austin-based Pets America visited City Hall to deliver the masks, purchased with more than $5,500 in donations made by individuals and corporate and community groups, including Lowe's, Tomlinson's Feed & Pets, and the Austin Community Foundation. The cone-shaped masks are specifically designed to help animals in distress. "It's very common to go into a burning structure and find pets that have succumbed to smoke inhalation," council member and former Austin firefighter Mike Martinez said in a press release. "These masks will help increase our chances of saving pets during fire rescues." Founded in 2005, the Pets America Partnership teaches pet owners how to care for animals in emergency situations and seeks to get animal-care provisions incorporated into local emergency-response plans. For more info, to find out about volunteer opportunities, or to sign up for an upcoming pet first aid and CPR-training class, go to www.petsamerica.org. J.S.
Latino USA, a locally produced public radio program that airs on KUT-FM on Fridays at 4pm, said a philanthropic foundation is giving it a $300,000 grant. The money from the William and Salomé Scanlan Foundation of Austin and San Antonio will be used to expand the weekly program's "coverage of immigration issues in America through the 2008 presidential election," according to a press release. Produced in partnership with KUT and the Center for Mexican-American Studies at UT-Austin, Latino USA is syndicated to 172 stations around the country. Kevin Brass
The national immigration debate goes local this week. The Austin Immigrant Rights Coalition, which fights for the rights of immigrants and for immigration reform, has filled the week with several outreach activities, along with groups nationwide who are part of Detention Watch Network. Slated for Thursday is an AIRC call to action, during which members will speak to the public and the press about immigration issues, specifically objections to proposed legislation Senate Bill 1348. "AIRC believes that while the so-called immigration compromise may contain some well-intended measure that would assist many hardworking people with their quest for legal status, it also contains many measures that will rip families apart, put into place harsh detention and enforcement measures that deny even basic legal rights to immigrants and sets up a temporary worker program rife with the potential for employer abuse," said AIRC spokesman Chris Jimmerson. AIRC has also declared Thursday "A Day to Be Heard," urging people to call Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison's and John Cornyn's local offices that day "to tell them to support immigration reform that is comprehensive and provides immigrants with at least the basic human rights we have all come to expect," said AIRC's Leslie Helmcamp. Patricia J. Ruland
Austin Independent School District has been under pressure to involve the community more in planning the district's ambitious high school redesign program, and it just got a helping hand from the program's major funder. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation will grant $830,000 to three Austin organizations to help engage parents, students, and community leaders in the process. Austin Voices for Education and Youth will work to engage students at five high schools. The Austin Area Urban League will reach out to African-American parents and hopes to raise awareness and build support for the redesign plan. The Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce Foundation will sponsor four town-hall meetings about the redesign plan in the Hispanic community and run a mentorship program at Johnston High. The Gates Foundation has invested more than $1.7 billion nationally to reform high schools by focusing on small learning communities, advisory periods, and mentoring programs. Michael May
Two Bastrop Co. officials stand indicted on charges of misappropriation of taxpayer funds in connection with using inmate labor and other county resources for their personal benefit, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott announced in mid-May. Bastrop Co. Sheriff Richard Hernandez and County Commissioner David Goertz were each indicted on one count of abuse of official capacity after an AG-led investigation revealed that the two elected officials misused county equipment, materials, inmate labor, facilities, and credit accounts, the AG reports. Goertz used inmate labor to do electrical work and to build and install a steel railing and two barbecue pits at his home. The AG alleges that he also approved overtime pay for a county employee who was supervising the inmates as they toiled on Goertz's private projects. Goertz has said he will not step down. Hernandez, the AG alleges, used inmate labor to build barbecue pits and to remodel a "mobile barbecue trailer," all later sold for personal profit tellingly, the AG alleges, Hernandez required the buyer to pay in cash. Hernandez resigned his post May 22. Reportedly, he paid $3,750 in restitution, toward the $4,500 he got for the barbecue trailer; the AG's office says the payback does not change the criminal case against the former sheriff. If convicted on the felony charges, each official could spend up to two years in state jail where, if lucky, they'll get to develop the skills to build their very own barbecue pits. J.S.
Beyond City Limits
Steve Laukhuf, former general manager and publisher of the Round Rock Leader, announced this week his candidacy for Williamson Co. Commissioners Court, Precinct 1, becoming the first WilCo hopeful to file for the 2008 elections. Lisa Birkman is the incumbent; both are Republican in a predominately Republican county the contest could turn out to be an interesting battle of conservative wills. It's Laukhuf's first bid for public office, but he's a veteran community volunteer, with leadership roles on the Round Rock Chamber of Commerce, Charter Commission, Community Development Advisory Commission, and Independent School District Finance Committee, among others, to his credit. He also serves as a reserve sergeant with the Travis Co. Sheriff's Office. As to his motive for running for commissioner, Laukhuf ruled out that winning would be a ticket to higher office. "This is the only elected office I will ever seek," he told the Chronicle. His campaign slogan is "It's time to work together again," reflecting his goal to be a voice of diversity in the county. Laukhuf, who now heads his own communications firm, Round Rock-based One Voice Communications, promises he'll be an agent of openness and compromise on the court. P.R.
The grand opening of Capital Metro's Leander Park-and-Ride is this Saturday, 9am-1pm. The site, located off U.S. 183 just north of FM 2243, will eventually be the starting point for Capital Metro's rail line. Until then, the 600 parking spaces will be available for bus commuters. Saturday's activities include live entertainment by Dale Watson and a free barbecue lunch. U.S. Rep. John Carter will make opening remarks at 10am. K.R.
As moaning over high gas prices reached a crescendo during the opening of the summer driving season last weekend, energy analysts mindful of hurricane season bearing down on our close-to-capacity domestic refining equipment warned gas guzzlers that things can get way worse, and fast. Meanwhile, following President Bush's shocking recent call for diminished oil dependence, Congress is reconsidering the Fuel Economy Reform Act, a popular bipartisan measure that would increase average fuel economy standards 4% per year until 2018, reaching 35 miles per gallon by 2020, while purportedly saving 2.2 million barrels of oil a day and cutting CO2 emissions by 370 million metric tons a year. But the Auto Alliance, the traditionally nongreen lobbying group representing nine major automakers (not Honda, Hyundai, or Nissan) is running a million-dollar ad campaign in 10 states urging voters to contact their reps in opposition to the bill. They're also fighting efforts by California and 11 other states to introduce tougher MPG standards (similar legislation was proposed and failed in Texas). The Union of Concerned Scientists in turn attacked the Auto Alliance. "Automakers are not giving consumers the 34-mpg SUVs, the 37-mpg minivans and the 41-mpg family cars our nation's top engineers and scientists can deliver," said David Friedman, UCS Clean Vehicles program research director, referencing a recent National Academies of Science report. For more, see www.ucsusa.org. Daniel Mottola
The social networking site MySpace.com said last week that it will provide state attorneys general, including Texas AG Greg Abbott, the names of any registered sex offenders who have set up profiles on the Web site. MySpace initially resisted state requests to release personal information about its users, citing concerns about federal privacy laws but on May 23 said "productive conversations" with attorneys general in Connecticut and North Carolina prompted the reversal, reports the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. In a press release, Abbott said the company will turn over the names of registered sex offenders, their MySpace profile information, and the users' IP and e-mail addresses, which his office will use to "crack down on online sex predators." Reportedly, the company last month began using software designed to identify any registered sex offenders among the more than 175 million user profiles. As of May 2, about 7,000 profiles had been removed. J.S.