Naked City


Quote of the Week

"Lady Bird Johnson cared for all that is beautiful and vulnerable in this world. Every child in a Head Start program, every wildflower brightening our roadways is a testament to her service to our nation. Our thoughts and prayers are with her children and grandchildren, who continue her tradition of public service." – U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas


Headlines

• Former first lady Claudia "Lady Bird" Johnson, who died last week at the age of 94, was laid to rest Sunday at the LBJ Ranch, following a weekend of visitation at the LBJ Library and processional through Downtown and to Johnson City.

• Declaring, "It's been a great ride," City Manager Toby Futrell made it thoroughly official on Monday: She'll retire at the end of May 2008, and City Council will conduct a national search for her successor. See "Point Austin," and "Beside the Point."

Whole Foods CEO John Mackey apologized for being John Mackey, or more precisely, for the "poor judgment" of blasting the store's competition anonymously online.

• The U.S. Senate tried and failed again to move toward military withdrawal from Iraq, as Democrats could not persuade enough Republicans to vote for cloture on a filibuster to block a proposal to withdraw. Meanwhile, President Bush declared he has al Qaeda on the run, while his security team issued a report indicating the militant group is expanding in Pakistan, planning attacks on the U.S., and stronger than ever.


Naked City

• Members of the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization's new peer review committee are preparing to hire a consultant to review the governance, financing, and planning of Capital Metro, where the biggest looming issue is finances. At a CAMPO work session last week, Cap Metro's chief of staff, Andrea Lofye, told the subcommittee that Cap Metro, once a cash cow flush with local sales-tax dollars, is only three years away from expenses exceeding projected revenues. Most of the transit authority's reserves have gone into the initial leg of its commuter rail line. Cap Metro has already begun the process of proposing a fare hike, its first since 1984. – Kimberly Reeves

• Speaking of getting around, at this week's meeting of CAMPO's Transportation Policy Board, the group Fix290 pleaded for more time to complete a mediation on the toll road project proposed for the "Y" in Oak Hill, the junction of U.S. 290 West and State Highway 71. Other groups involved in the mediation are more skeptical of Fix290's intentions, questioning whether the group is using a delay tactic simply to push its own parkway plan for the road project. Public hearings for all aspects of what is known as the region's Transportation Improvement Plan – the rolling three-year plan of the most immediate road construction programs, including toll roads – will be scheduled around CAMPO's three-county region in September; members are slated to consider and vote on the region's remaining toll projects at its October meeting. – K.R.

• Austin cyclist Vilhelm Hesness, 56, was killed last Wednesday morning near the corner of Manchaca and FM 1626 southwest of Austin when he was struck by a sport utility vehicle, which at some point lost control and came to rest on its side. This is July's second car-on-bike fatality. Texas Department of Public Safety spokeswoman Lisa Block said Tuesday that the crash was still under investigation and that no determination had been made as to whether charges would be brought against the SUV driver, Richard Alan Lee, 43, also of Austin, who was taken to Brackenridge Hospital with cuts and bruises. In recent years, the cycling community has blasted areawide authorities for failing to punish drivers who kill or injure cyclists, creating little deterrence against motorists intimidating or assaulting bicyclists. Block said Hesness was riding legally when he was struck by the SUV, which was also heading southbound on Manchaca. Hesness, who was riding a recumbent, or sit-down, bicycle, was described as an experienced bicyclist by cycling community members and is believed to have been wearing a helmet. Block said Lee could possibly be ticketed for failure to control speed or other violations, but those citations are based on factors still under investigation. – Daniel Mottola

• According to a tentative agreement reached by Austin Independent School District Superintendent Pat Forgione and Education Austin, the local teacher's union, a beginning salary for Austin teachers would be raised to $40,240 for the 2007-2008 school year. AISD's board of trustees will have to approve the increase. The wages would be $1,700 more than they were this past school year, with $1,310 of the increase coming from the district and $390 coming from the state. The teachers' salary would be 3.9% higher than 2006-2007, and all other district employees would receive a 3% increase. The new salaries are part of the preliminary budget that AISD trustees are considering, which totals $762.9 million in expenditures in 2007-2008 and would be financed by a tax rate of $1.178 per $100 of assessed property value. Trustees are scheduled to adopt the budget in August. – Michael May

• County leaders have sent Sun Coast Resources back to negotiate with neighbors over a plan to put six 20,000-gallon gasoline-holding tanks on the company's property on Johnny Morris Road. Neighbors, who still remember the Springdale tank-farm fiasco, are not satisfied with the company's assurances the tanks are safer than most gas stations. A community meeting was scheduled for Wednesday, July 18, with the goal of putting the item back on the county agenda on July 24. – K.R.

• The city's second day-labor site, in the parking lot of Midnight Rodeo on Ben White Boulevard near South Industrial Drive, opened last week. In the meantime, Day Labor Community Advisory Committee membersstill await council reaction to a number of suggestions made by the group, including increased input from local neighborhoods on a recommended advisory board. Kim Bernson of the Ridgetop neighborhood, near the initial day-labor site, sat on the board that recommended the new location and says it's time for both day-labor sites to have better feedback between day laborers and their local neighbors. Lori Renteria, another committee member, said she's disappointed the city decided to pursue a city-run facility to operate the day-labor site, rather than a private contract. Some committee members wanted a more innovative site model, such as a worker-run facility with day laborers paid to assist in supervising. – K.R.

• Late last week, Place 5 Council Member Brewster McCracken released a statement confirming that he and his wife, Mindy Montford, have agreed to a divorce after a separation of seven months. Montford is an assistant district attorney with the Travis County DA's Office. "With great sadness, I am confirming that Mindy and I have agreed to end our marriage. We are incredibly blessed to have a wonderful son together. We both love our son very much, and we will work together to be great parents for him." – Wells Dunbar

Caritas of Austin is fighting the good fight against poverty, one year at a time. Recently released is the agency's 2006 annual report, which marks 43 years of service and documents the agency's ever-expanding mission. Caritas assists families in avoiding eviction and homelessness, feeds hundreds of people each day, and advises job seekers as they become self-sufficient, among many other services. Especially timely is Caritas' Refugee Resettlement program. In 2006, Caritas provided crucial help with transportation, housing, food, health care, employment, language, and financial needs to 165 documented refugees from Cuba, Iran, Ethiopia, Liberia, Congo, Sudan, Vietnam, and Afghanistan. In the report, Executive Director Beth Atherton thanks agencies, businesses, and individuals lending time and money to Caritas' many programs. "Your … dedication … allows us to not only provide basic needs in times of crisis but also offer opportunities to achieve self-sufficiency," Atherton wrote. According to the report, revenue sources were $2,608,636 in government contracts, $522,900 in funds generated by special events, $716,815 from individuals, $711,200 from foundations, $136,096 from faith-based organizations, $97,788 from the United Way, $292,783 from businesses, $50,463 in interest income, and $315,293 in in-kind contributions – for a total of $5,451,974. Expenses listed were the Basic Needs Coalition, at $1,285,198; basic-needs services, $2,018,151; self-sufficiency services, $1,295,937; and administration/fundraising, $677,307 – for a total of $5,276,593. – Patricia J. Ruland


Beyond City Limits

• On Friday, from noon to 1pm, protesters will gravitate to the Austin location of Corrections Corporation of America, at 8015 Shoal Creek Blvd., to object to CCA's profiting from immigrant detention, particularly at the T. Don Hutto Family Residential Center in Taylor, which houses 400 immigrant women and children. The facility is co-sponsored by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Williamson County Commissioners Court. For more info on CCA, check out www.shareholder.com/cxw, where the company touts itself as "industry leader" and "industry founder," providing 63 facilities "at less cost to the taxpayer," which is what probably lured WilCo officials. In 2006, CCA set a company record of $1.3 billion in revenue, for there's a "growing need" for beds, as stated in the section entitled "Why CCA." The report doesn't hearken, however, to when T. Don Hutto, a former overflow jail, faced hard times after counties and states built new corrections facilities; before WilCo ratified the contract with ICE, in December 2006, T. Don Hutto was on its last legs. – P.J.R.

• Gov. Rick Perry has chosen Don McLeroy to serve as chair of the State Board of Education. McLeroy, a Bryan dentist, is a member of the board's conservative bloc, which wrested control of most SBOE committees during a February board meeting. This will be the first time conservatives, rather than moderates or liberals, have had control of both the board and most of its committees. The Texas Freedom Network expressed its displeasure at the appointment, calling McLeroy "a clear ideologue." This new conservative-majority SBOE will likely provide plenty of fodder for the group's protest. This week, the SBOE is expected to take up, among other things, textbook legislation and curriculum standards for the proposed elective Bible course. – K.R.

• In other education news, No Child Left Behind is failing Texas high school students, according to a recent policy brief by the Alliance for Excellent Education. The report, titled "In Need of Improvement: NCLB and High Schools," comes as Washington lawmakers contemplate whether to reauthorize President Bush's nationwide accountability system and argues that NCLB is too focused on kindergarten through eighth grade, largely ignoring the needs of high school students – including 33% of Texas students, the percentage of which failed to graduate last year. Among the report's key findings: NCLB forces schools to be accountable for test scores while ignoring graduation rates, the law doesn't include reading programs for middle and high school students, despite the fact that 74% of Texas eighth-graders read below a proficient level, and the tools NCLB provides to low-performing schools do not reflect modern research and academic best practices. Instead of "short-sighted" proposals to merely extend testing regimes to high schools, the alliance is urging Congress to draw on education research to develop a systemic solution. "While well-intentioned, the current NCLB simply does not address the dropout problem and permits far too many students to finish high school without adequate preparation for college or the modern workforce," said alliance President Bob Wise. – Justin Ward

• Opponents of the Oak Grove power plant, TXU's lignite-coal-burning behemoth proposed 115 miles northeast of Austin – expected to drastically exacerbate pollution from smog, greenhouse gases, and toxic mercury in Central Texas – filed a motion this week for a Texas Commission on Environmental Quality air-permit rehearing; TCEQ granted the permit in a 2-1 decision last month. In addition to faulting TCEQ commissioners for overruling a prior denial recommendation from two state administrative judges (based on a lack of evidence that TXU's pollution controls are adequate), Oak Grove's opponents – who include nearby community groups, environmental organizations, and a majority of downwind metropolitan city governments – say the TCEQ erred by not requiring TXU to consider cleaner fuels to reduce pollution and by not considering whether the plant's emissions would worsen air pollution in Dallas-Fort Worth and Austin; opponents also take issue with the fact that the case was heard under Gov. Perry's coal-plant fast-tracking executive order, ruled unconstitutional by Travis County Judge Stephen Yelenosky in February. – D.M.

• Texas has its own version of Jessica's Law, with the signing by Gov. Rick Perry of the stringent new anti-pedophile House Bill 8 at a press conference on Monday. With Mark Lunsford, father of murdered Florida 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford, by his side, Perry signed the bill, officially making sexually violent acts against children more serious criminal offenses in Texas than sexually violent offenses against adults. Jessica's Law sets a 25-year sentence for sexually violent offences against a child younger than 14 and makes a second offence a capital felony. It also removes the possibility of parole or time off for good behavior for anyone convicted under this bill. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst called the Texas version the toughest take on Jessica's Law in the country and said it is intended to discourage sexual predators from moving to Texas. The press was then shooed out of the governor's reception room so he could sign seven other, less photogenic bills. – Richard Whittaker

• Snake-oil vendors are alive and thriving in Texas, according to Attorney General Greg Abbott, who recently filed charges in Travis County against Mannatech Inc., a Coppell-based nutritional-supplement firm, for using bad science, and even religion, to claim its products cure everything from Down syndrome to AIDS and even fight off bioterrorism attacks. Abbott calls the products a sham in the petition and claims that Mannatech CEO Samuel Caster deliberately misled and endangered Texans. He alleges that to sell the products, Mannatech used inflated research about the benefits of "glyconutrition" by Dr. Reg McDaniel of the Fisher Institute for Medical Research, a supposedly educational charity run by McDaniel's wife, Candace. McDaniel also serves as medical director for MannaRelief Ministries, a religious group founded by Caster to solicit donations to send Mannatech's miracle supplements to developing nations. Caster, McDaniel, MannaRelief, and the Fisher Institute are also named in the suit. (This is no fly-by-night operation: Last year, the NASDAQ-listed Mannatech as making $400 million.) If convicted, they all face fines of $20,000 per violation under the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act, plus Mannatech faces charges under the Texas Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, with fines of $25,000 per day per violation. – R.W.

• Texas may become home to the U.S. government's new biowarfare research facility. Homeland Security announced the Texas Research Park outside of San Antonio, along with sites in Kansas, Georgia, North Carolina, and Mississippi, has been short-listed as a potential host for the $500 million, 520,000-square-foot National Biological and Agro-Defense Facility. A joint project by the departments of Homeland Security, Agriculture, and Health and Human Services, the lab will research defenses against potential biological threats to humans and the food chain. It replaces the Plum Island Animal Disease Center, located off the New York coast and once famously referred to by Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs as Anthrax Island. The other leading Texas bid, backed by Texas A&M University, failed after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suspended all bio-defense research at the university when it failed to report two separate incidents of researchers being exposed to dangerous diseases. – R.W.

• Challenging the four-decade-long economic blockade against Cuba and the U.S. government's rigid restrictions against travel to the socialist republic, Pastors for Peace, a project of the Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization, was detained by U.S. border authorities this week when attempting to cross into Mexico as part of the group's 18th annual Cuba aid caravan. The caravan includes 12 brightly painted vehicles carrying 126 activists and 90 tons of aid, such as crutches, wheelchairs, commodes, and medical supplies. PFP reported Wednesday that the majority of the caravan has been released, after exhaustive searches and X-raying, and has entered Mexico en route to Tampico, where the vehicles will board ferries and sail toward Cuba. U.S. officials are still detaining one bus loaded with computer aid, including CPUs, modems, cables, and toner cartridges. Authorities did the same thing two years ago and didn't release the aid for nearly a year. "What they are taking from us today is purely symbolic. They are trying to show us that they are in charge. But we know that we are the ones in charge and that the people's power will prevail," said the Rev. Luis Barrios of PFP. The caravan's blog is temporarily disabled and is being investigated by government officials, but more info is available at www.pastorsforpeace.org. – D.M.

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