Quote of the Week
"It is through [the Department of Justice's] continued work that our country and our communities remain safe, that the rights and civil liberties of our citizens are protected, and the hopes and dreams of all of our children are secured."
– From the Aug. 27 resignation statement of U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, staunch defender of the Bush administration's domestic-spying program
The trial of Laura Hall, accused of tampering with evidence and hindering apprehension of Colton Pitonyak in connection with the 2005 murder of Jennifer Cave, began in Travis Co. district court on Tuesday. See "Was Laura Hall a Murder Accomplice?"
The American Civil Liberties Union announced a settlement Monday in a lawsuit filed on behalf of immigrant children imprisoned at the T. Don Hutto Residential Center in Taylor. For more, see "Beyond City Limits," below.
First Karl, now Beto. Beloved U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales announced his resignation on Aug. 27. Cheney next? Hey, we can dream. For the lowdown on Rove's retirement plans, see "Rove: The History Campaign."
The city's Animal Advisory Commission voted against relocating Town Lake Animal Center at its Aug. 21 meeting – sort of. Actually, the commission sent a message to City Council by voting against a staff recommendation to hire an architect for the new shelter. That document included language specifically tying the project to a new site – the Eastside Health and Human Services Department campus. The planned relocation has been controversial. Numerous animal advocates and neighborhood associations oppose it; some appeared at the Animal Advisory Commission meeting to speak out against relocation. Commissioner Lisa McClain moved to recommend that council reject the staff document because "it is specifically tied to the HHSD campus." She cited three supporting concerns about the relocation, including inadequate public input. Her second motion passed 5-2, with one abstention. City staff recommended a Houston architectural firm, Jackson & Ryan Architects, which dutifully addressed only the HHSD campus site, according to a participant close to the selection process. The other finalist interviewed, local Barnes Gromatzky Kosarek Architects (with Connolly Architects), is known for consensus-building and facilitating public stakeholder input during planning and design, as it did for the Palmer Events Center. Could staff's desire to quell messy public debate have shaped their architect recommendation? Whether council will still select an architect at its Sept. 27 meeting is now unknown. – Katherine Gregor
Austin Independent School District is using the First Things First model to implement its high school redesign program at Johnston, LBJ, Reagan, Crockett, and Travis high schools. The national model, which has proven successful in Houston and Kansas City, works by providing additional training to teachers and administrators, breaking the school into smaller learning communities of 300 to 400 students focused on a central theme and creating what's known as the Family Advocacy System. As part of the FAS, an adult on the campus will meet with the same group of 15 to 20 students every week and coach them through academic and social difficulties. These advisory groups are an attempt to create relationships between staff and students, create a better climate at the school, increase attendance, and help students with their college and career plans. The FAS also gives parents a person at the school to talk with about their child's situation. – Michael May
KUT-FM is dumping LiveSet, the long-running weekly show featuring live performances by local and national musical acts. The program will be replaced by one of public radio's ubiquitous syndicated programs, Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me!, a weekly one-hour quiz show, which will debut on KUT at 10am Saturday. To make way for Wait Wait, Folkways, hosted by Larry Monroe, will shift back an hour and run 11am-4pm, taking over the 3pm slot formerly occupied by LiveSet. In recent weeks, LiveSet featured performances by Joe Ely, Grupo Fantasma, and the Mother Truckers, among others. In the rhetoric of KUT, eliminating LiveSet will actually allow the station to "bring more live music performances to our listeners." The station will "redirect resources" to live performances in other shows, according to a station press release. "This will help us feature more live music on Folkways and give us the ability to bring in a wider range of acts that come to town and are only available on the weekend," said program director Hawk Mendenhall in the release. KUT is "exploring opportunities to repackage the 20-year LiveSet archive for digital distribution." Hosted by Peter Sagal and taped in front of a live audience, Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me! challenges guest panelists and listeners with questions about current events. – Kevin Brass
Neighbors of Travis Park Apartments in Travis Heights are claiming a victory in their struggle to effect change in what they say is a troubled housing project. Members of the social activist organization Austin Interfaith blame poor management by the Lynd Company, a San Antonio-based apartment-management firm, for bad social conditions at the Department of Housing and Urban Development-subsidized low-income apartment complex – the same one at which Esther's Follies juggler Warren "Red Ryder" Schwartz was murdered last year – which they claim is negatively affecting Travis Heights Elementary. Now they say their allegations are backed up by a HUD contractor's report giving Lynd an "unsatisfactory" rating on its annual management-and-occupancy review. Lynd says the rating, issued by Southwest Housing Compliance Corp., is less serious than Austin Interfaith portrays and says any issues raised by SHCC will be addressed and fixed within 30 days. Austin Interfaith claims students from Travis Park have double the rate of Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills test failures, discipline problems, and absenteeism in comparison to the Heights, what Austin Interfaith calls an "identical" low-income rental complex nearby. Travis Park has 118 students enrolled at Travis Heights; the Heights has 66. Lynd officials say the two communities are not comparable. – Lee Nichols
A trio of ethics watchdogs has told City Council that the members of the Downtown Commission had too many conflicts of interest – that can be read as "own too much land Downtown" – to make an objective decision on the Capitol-view corridors. In a letter dated Aug. 8, attorney Fred Lewis of Campaigns for People, Craig McDonald of Texans for Public Justice, and Tom "Smitty" Smith of Public Citizen questioned the timing of commissioners' disclosures of their own property interests Downtown when voting on the view-corridor recommendations. Commission Chair Jeb Boyt calls the recommendations a starting point for discussion. And Downtown landowner Robert Knight, the subject of some of the accusations, dismissed the concerns. "Almost everything that we own is not in the view corridor," Knight said. "To the extent that we are pushing to remove the view corridors, we're simply increasing competition for our own property Downtown. If we were operating in our own best interest, we'd be expanding the view corridors, not removing them." The recommendations will go to council Oct. 11. – Kimberly Reeves
The Travis Co. Healthcare District presented its $89.7 million budget to county commissioners last week. It would drop the tax rate from 7.3 cents per $100 valuation to 6.9 cents. Due to property-value increases over the last year, though, the tax bill on an average home value of $243,800 will be $135.16, up from $132.13. Minor increases in funding will go to the medical-assistance program and mental-health care. The district also expects to pass a budget amendment midyear to replace the Northeast Austin clinic. Public hearings on the budget are scheduled for Aug. 30 and Sept. 6. The Healthcare District's board is expected to adopt the final budget Sept. 13, with Commissioners Court adopting the budget and tax rate on Sept. 18. – K.R.
The Lower Colorado River Authority's water users in western Travis Co. can expect a steep increase in water rates, which produced a long line of speakers at last week's LCRA meeting. Those speakers, led by Bee Cave Mayor Caroline Murphy, talked about LCRA's promises seven years ago when it bought the two local municipal utility districts: lower rates due to increased economies of scale. Instead, most ratepayers can expect to pay another $30 per month. When the new rate came down to a vote, Chair Ray Wilkerson said the objections were heard but the move to raise water rates had been postponed too long. "That's not to justify it," Wilkerson said. "It's just the fact of where we've come to." Coincidentally (or perhaps not), general manager Joe Beal announced his retirement at the end of last week's meeting, after a seven-year tenure at the agency. – K.R.
Beyond City Limits
On Aug. 27, the American Civil Liberties Union announced a landmark settlement in litigation filed on behalf of 26 immigrant children incarcerated at the T. Don Hutto Residential Center in Taylor, with the last six children released in the final days of mediation. "This is a huge victory not only for the children and families released but for detainees held at the facility," said Vanita Gupta, attorney with the ACLU's Racial Justice Program. Administered by Williamson Co. Commissioners Court and run by for-profit Corrections Corporation of America, the former overflow prison has been lambasted worldwide for substandard living conditions. "I am trying to forget everything about Hutto. It was a nightmare," said Andrea Restrepo, 12, freed after a year. From now on, detainees will be allowed visitors seven days a week, access to rights groups, and an on-site pediatrician. In addition, cells will have toys, books, pens and paper, and curtains around toilets. And, families won't have to spend 12 hours a day under lock and key. The victory is expected to add steam to the ACLU's plea to Congress to mandate alternatives to incarceration of noncriminal immigrant families. – Patricia J. Ruland
Just months after lawyers with the Texas Attorney General's Office reached a settlement with the Bexar Co. animal sanctuary Primarily Primates Inc., returning control from a temporary receiver to a reformed PPI management, the battle over the sanctuary has returned to court with PPI filing a lawsuit in San Antonio seeking the return of six retired research chimps from Chimp Haven, a Florida sanctuary where they were transferred last year while the facility was in receivership. The AG filed a temporary restraining order against PPI last October, alleging the nonprofit had mismanaged charitable donations to the detriment of the animals in its care. The litany of allegations suggested that PPI was guilty of serious animal neglect. PPI operations were placed under the control of temporary receiver Lee Theisen-Watt, who won approval to have six chimps retired from Ohio State University moved from PPI to Chimp Haven in order to provide better care and help alleviate overcrowding at PPI. Now PPI wants the chimps back. In a response filed Aug. 29, Chimp Haven's Texas attorney Don Feare argues the chimps should not be returned to Texas, in part because to do so would be a "violation" of state statute and an order adopted by the Bexar Co. Commissioners Court prohibiting possession of "dangerous wild animals" within the county. For more on PPI, see "Famous Long Ago," Dec. 15, 2006. – Jordan Smith
A federal appeals court has stopped – at least for now – the Kickapoo tribe's efforts to add Las Vegas-style casino gambling to its reservation in Eagle Pass along the Mexican border. The Department of the Interior had given tentative approval for class III casino gaming early this year over the objections of the state. The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals called those federal administrative procedures invalid, saying they failed to safeguard the rights of the state in approving a tribal-state compact. While federal law does take precedence in the approval of gambling on Indian reservations, the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act does give states a significant subordinate role in the decision. The Kickapoo tribe has been seeking high-stakes gambling on its reservation since 1995. Texas has consistently opposed that measure. – K.R.
In a blow for advocates of electronic elections, major voting-machine manufacturer Diebold Inc. has taken steps to dump its beleaguered e-voting division. The firm announced Aug. 16 that Allen-based Diebold Election Systems, which manufactures the controversial AccuVote TSX touch-screen voting system, will be renamed Premier Election Solutions and made more autonomous from the parent company. Diebold had been looking for a buyer but found there were no interested parties. In a press release, Diebold blamed "rapidly evolving political uncertainties and controversies surrounding ... purchases of electronic voting systems." The division had been a public relations millstone ever since the firm took over Global Election Systems in 2002 to create it. Since then, the firm and its clients have faced multiple lawsuits over machine security and the potential for voter fraud. Diebold also substantially lowered its annual revenue predictions for the voting division. – Richard Whittaker
The age of the e-Republican is upon us. Texas conservative campaign strategists have founded BigRedTent.org, a website intended to bring the GOP into the digital age. It's being run out of the offices of the Patriot Group, an Austin-based lobbying and campaign firm specializing in anti-regulation, small-government candidates. According to a Patriot Group press release, "Republicans have fallen behind in using the Internet to protect our values," and its own blogs savage the GOP for failing to use the fundraising potential of the Web. The release compares the Internet-illiterate GOP campaign machine unfavorably to the Democrat's ActBlue, which raised $26 million during the 2006 campaign. To fill in the gap, Big Red Tent is taking online donations for suitable candidates and providing forums for people to boost their favored politician. So far, the online political action committee is soliciting donations for Colorado Rep. Marilyn Musgrave, presidential hopeful Mitt Romney and Texas' own U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, whom the PAC says is "in for an expensive campaign." The PAC's leaders should know: Big Red Tent founder and Patriot Group principal Brad Jackson worked on Cornyn's 2002 election campaign, then went on to work in the senator's D.C. office. – R.W.