Quote of the Week
"It's not about them; it's about us." -- Austin attorney Richard "Dicky" Grigg, speaking about his experiences as a pro bono defender of detainees at the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, most of whom are held with little or no evidence of wrongdoing
City Council meets Thursday, Aug. 9, with better revenue news, social services on the budget presentation agenda, and renewed questions about the plans for and cost of Water Treatment Plant No. 4. See "Beside the Point."
Although the Lege is out of session, the arguments continue over the embattled tenure of House Speaker Tom Craddick, as Attorney General Greg Abbott solicits advice from members about House rules. Meanwhile, community colleges are scrambling for funds vetoed by the governor. See "Beyond City Limits," below, and "Community-College Controversy Continues."
Last week, both houses of Congress passed increased appropriations for the state Children's Health Insurance Program, and the conference committee will attempt to craft a bill that will avoid a threatened presidential veto. President Bush has blasted the expansion of "government-run" health care, but the prospect of leaving millions of children without care dominates the debate, at least for now.
Austin Police Department Chief Art Acevedo formally announced on Aug. 2 his picks to ascend to the department's fifth floor to become part of the top cop's executive team. Acevedo tapped Assistant Chief David Carter, a 24-year veteran cop (appointed assistant chief by former Chief Stan Knee in 2006), to become his new chief of staff, a job previously held by retired Assistant Chief Rick Coy. Acevedo has also retained Assistant Chief Leo Enriquez for the fifth-floor squad; then-acting Chief Cathy Ellison first tapped Enriquez for administrative duty earlier this year. Also promoted to Acevedo's executive team are Northwest Area Command Cmdr. Sam Holt, a 28-year vet who also serves as chair of the city's African American Quality of Life Commission (and who earned some community support in his quest to take over the chief's post after Knee left; Holt applied for the job but was not named as a finalist, likely in part because he hadn't yet served as an assistant chief, a requirement for the job); Cmdr. Al Eells, a 24-year APD officer who heads up the department's Special Response Team and served as both a detective and lieutenant in the homicide unit; and Cmdr. Patti Robinson, a 20-year officer (who enjoys strong support among the rank-and-file and especially among the department's female officers) who most recently served as head of the Central East Area Command. Cmdr. Julie O'Brien, who was tapped as an acting assistant chief by Ellison, was not tapped for permanent placement upstairs and will be reassigned as a commander elsewhere – of course, at least three possible posts are now available. – Jordan Smith
Twenty-seven-year-old Paul Ross Evans, facing a handful of federal charges in connection with the April 25 attempted bombing of the Austin Women's Health Center, has accepted a plea deal that could land him in federal prison for up to 40 years. Evans allegedly purchased bomb-making materials – including soft-sided coolers, piping, and at least 2 pounds of nails – in Lufkin the day before leaving the bomb at the South Austin clinic. The bomb was spotted by a clinic employee and was defused by police without incident. So far, Evans has not confessed any motivation for the crime. – J.S.
Developers can now apply for the city's first affordable-housing bonds, which will be aimed at some of Austin's lowest-income residents. The first cycle of competitive grants – a rather modest $2.2 million – will be distributed on a competitive basis and aimed at housing for individuals and families who make less than 30% median income. In Austin, that means individuals making less than $24,900 and a family of four earning less than $35,550. The bonds can be used to acquire property or housing for rehabilitation, as well as the construction of new housing. Applications and program guidelines are available at www.ci.austin.tx.us/ahfc or at the Austin Housing Finance Corporation's office at 1000 E. 11th #200. – Kimberly Reeves
Fifteen of the 20 high-needs Austin schools that received money from the state for teacher bonuses will lose that designation in the coming school year. The money came from the Texas Educator Excellence Grant program, a statewide $100 million bonus plan that is the largest in the nation. Across the state, around half of the 1,150 schools that received the grants last year will lose them, largely because of weak scores on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills test. Around 20 Austin schools are poised to receive the grants this year, but the vast majority of them are new to the program. The turnover calls into question whether or not the grants will help struggling schools keep talented teachers. Julie Lyons, Austin Independent School District's director of state and federal accountability, says that's not what the grants were designed to do. "The intent is to reward high-performing teachers and collaboration," Lyons says. "But we've got a critical shortage of experienced teachers in high-needs schools. Recruiting and retaining those teachers is very important." AISD is developing its own teacher-bonus program that will reward teachers for staying at struggling schools. – Michael May
It's been a whole 20 years since NOKOA: The Observer first hit the news stands, and despite the odds, Akwasi Evans is still publishing "Austin's Leading Progressive Weekly Newspaper." On Aug. 4, 1987, Evans started his community newspaper with a goal of reaching out to Austin's various minority communities with a special focus on – but not limited to – African-Americans in East Austin. The Aug. 9 issue this year marked two decades of trying to fulfill that mission, with varying degrees of success. Asked if he had accomplished his goals with NOKOA, Evans said: "Yes and no. Yes, we accomplished our goal of serving a multicultural, diverse community, and no, we haven't done nearly as well as we had envisioned. We didn't have the financial capital to begin with to cover all the areas that need covering, and we have not been able to attract the revenue necessary to bring in the people to do that." But on the positive side, "We were instrumental in saving some people's jobs, in saving the life of death row inmate Clarence Brandley, and we were instrumental in giving access to the disabled community and giving a voice to the gay and lesbian community." Evans acknowledged that mission could get tougher as people increasingly turn to sources like the Internet for news and as East Austin's African-American population dwindles due to gentrification. "We're making changes as we speak, in order to be a paper that people look for and long for. We're carving a niche that people cannot afford to overlook. You can get in NOKOA what you can't get anywhere else: an Afrocentric perspective on human events that affect them and Austin." Asked if he thought he'd last 20 years, Evans unflinchingly said, "Absolutely. I thought we'd last quite a while longer." – Lee Nichols
"Throw out the record books, because global warming is raising temperatures and wreaking havoc with our weather in Texas and across the country," said Environment Texas field associate J.J. Karabias. He's referring to a report released a couple of weeks ago by ET showing that Austin ranked fourth in the nation for cities with excessive heat days last summer. During 2006, Austin experienced 147 days where the temperature hit at least 90 degrees, 38 days more than the historical average, according to the report. Lisa Doggett of Austin Physicians for Social Responsibility added: "Climate change affects our health in many ways and may be the biggest public-health challenge facing us today. According to the World Health Organization, climate change caused an estimated 150,000 deaths in the year 2000." To avoid climate change's worst effects, ET calls for the U.S. to cut emissions by at least 15 to 20% by 2020 and by another 80% by 2050, in part through making power plants, businesses, homes, and cars more efficient, as well as by generating more electricity from clean, renewable sources, such as wind and solar power. – Daniel Mottola
Beyond City Limits
Republican infighting over the fate of House Speaker Tom Craddick has become a matter of legal record. After Reps. Jim Keffer, R-Eastland, and Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, requested a formal opinion from Attorney General Greg Abbott on the limits of Craddick's powers, Abbott had asked other representatives to submit advisory briefs. Fifteen Craddick-supporting Republicans, headed up by Leo Berman, R-Tyler, signed a letter claiming the selection and removal of the speaker was a House issue and that Abbott had no authority over it. However, a second letter signed by six senior anti-Craddick GOPers – including Pat Haggerty, R-El Paso, and Charlie Geren, R-River Oaks – took an opposing view. In the 29-page legal brief, they argued that not only was Craddick's refusal to hear a motion to vacate his seat against House rules, it was actually unconstitutional. Several other representatives followed the example of Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, by sending their own letters to Abbott. Jodie Laubenberg, R-Rockwall; Dan Flynn, R-Canton; and Bill Callegari, R-Houston, all called Keffer's and Cook's actions politically motivated. However, Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, who mounted an unsuccessful challenge against Craddick at the start of the last session, said the speaker's actions defied the rules of the House and the will of the people. – Richard Whittaker
The State Board of Education, which manages the $26 billion Texas Permanent School Fund, is starting to shift 28% of those funds into so-called alternative investments, such as hedge funds and buyout firms. The school fund issued a request for proposals from hedge-fund managers last month and could end up investing $7.3 billion in hedge funds alone. The school fund is falling behind the returns of other public investment funds, largely because of a conservative approach to investing. The new shift to alternative investments aims for high returns, but considering the current worries about the future of the stock market, the timing could prove to be terrible. The fund's managers are aware of the volatility of the market and plan to shift the assets slowly, over the next three to five years. – M.M.
TXU, the Dallas-based utility that became the villain in Texas' war against 19 proposed coal-burning power plants – whose recent buyout by a private equity firm has brought out shades of green, with plans for eight of 11 planned coal plants canceled and more attention to energy efficiency and renewable energy promised – has taken on a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde persona. Though TXU maintains its plans to build the massive Oak Grove coal-burning power plant (expected to exacerbate regional smog, mercury, and greenhouse-gas pollution), Luminant, a TXU subsidiary, (along with Shell WindEnergy) announced plans last week to construct an equally massive West Texas wind farm, expected to produce up to 3,000 megawatts of electricity and have the revolutionary capability of storing excess energy using compressed air. TXU is already the largest purchaser of wind power in Texas, and, if completed, its project will be the first application of compressed-air-energy storage in Texas. The technology uses surplus nighttime power to force air into underground rock formations, later used to spin an electricity-generating turbine. Compressed-air storage has only been implemented domestically in Iowa and Alabama. TXU says the wind farm and energy storage system could be online in three to five years. – D.M.
The U.S. House of Representatives passed a farm-aid bill July 27 that will give around $42 billion in subsidies to U.S. farmers, as well as an increase of $4 billion for food stamps and other nutrition programs. The bill divided the Democratic-controlled House. The more liberal members of the party wanted to limit the amount of subsidies given to wealthy farmers – especially considering the ethanol-fueled, record-high prices for corn and soybeans – and have more given to environmental and nutrition programs. The bill does stop subsidies from flowing to farmers who make more than $1 million a year, down from a limit of $2.5 million. On the other side of the aisle, Republicans objected to a measure that raised taxes on some multinational companies with U.S. subsidiaries. Only 19 Republicans ended up voting for the bill, which passed on a vote of 231-191. The bill now goes to the Senate, which expects to begin debate on it in September. – M.M.
With two of Texas' most famous lawyers potentially facing congressional charges arising from their roles in the U.S. attorney firing scandals, could they still practice Lone Star State law? Both former Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers and U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales still hold their law licenses from the State Bar of Texas. If they were found guilty by Congress, the bar is unsure whether it would have grounds to suspend their licenses, since there is no legal precedent. It has a reciprocity rule that says if a lawyer commits certain kinds of offenses in another jurisdiction, his or her license gets suspended. According to spokespeople for the bar, however, it's unclear whether Congress would classify as a jurisdiction. If it does, the bar would still have to wait until someone made an official complaint. The bar's Board of Disciplinary Appeals then would have to see whether any offense committed was what they call an intentional offense. Potentially, perjury before Congress and contempt of Congress could count as breaches of its Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct. But, like with so much of the firing scandal, the question of whether a convicted U.S. attorney general could still be a Texas lawyer remains a legal enigma. – R.W.
David Wallace Croft went to Dallas federal court this week to try to end the state's "minute of silence" law, arguing that it intentionally promotes prayer in school and is therefore unconstitutional. For years, Croft, an atheist, has been fighting the Carrollton-Farmers Branch school district, where his three children attend school. He complained about the Cub Scouts recruiting on campus because they exclude atheists, about a meeting of a Bible club after school, and about the singing of "Silent Night" during a holiday program. He has gotten the school to change some practices, but he faces an uphill battle in court. The Texas law, in effect since 2003, allows a moment of silence for students to "reflect, pray, meditate, or engage in any other silent activity." On his blog, Croft has transcriptions of the debate in the Lege, which he says prove the law's intent is to create prayer in schools. The U.S. Supreme Court struck down a moment-of-silence law in Alabama in 1985 because of such evidence but refused to hear a similar case in 2001. – M.M.
The adage that politics make for strange bedfellows is certainly coming true for former District 31 congressional candidate Mary Beth Harrell lately. During last year's race for the Central Texas district (which includes all of Williamson County), the Democrat quite rightly screamed bloody murder when Killeen PBS affiliate KNCT refused to air a documentary that focused specifically on her challenge to Rep. John Carter (a decision later reversed). Now, she is on KNCT every week with her own public-affairs program, Insight With Mary Beth Harrell. The program airs Thursdays at 7:30pm. Harrell has also been on the radio recently, doing a three-day stint filling in for far-right radio host Lynn Woolley on Temple's KTEM (1400AM). Now that's definitely an odd matchup: Harrell's opposition to the Bush administration's Iraq policy was a centerpiece of her campaign, while Woolley steadfastly supports the war. Harrell and the arch-conservative have apparently bonded over the issue of animal welfare, however. If you're too far south to get KNCT, each week's episode gets archived at InsightTexas.com. – L.N.