Quote of the Week
"After carefully considering the facts of this case ... I believe the right and just decision is to commute [Kenneth] Foster's sentence from the death penalty to life imprisonment."
– Gov. Rick Perry, Aug. 30
Last Thursday, Aug. 30, Gov. Rick Perry accepted the recommendation of the Board of Pardons and Paroles and commuted the capital sentence of Kenneth Foster to life imprisonment. See "Point Austin."
Laura Hall was convicted of hindering apprehension and tampering with evidence and was sentenced to six years of incarceration, in the 2005 West Campus murder and dismemberment of Jennifer Cave by Colton Pitonyak. See "The Unexplained Death of Jennifer Cave."
As congressional deadlines approached to evaluate the administration's "surge" of additional troops in Iraq, President George W. Bush made an unannounced visit to Anbar province to proclaim that the strategy is working, despite accumulating reports to the contrary. Commented Austin U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, "With his Iraq roadshow, the president desperately hopes that his propaganda surge will succeed where his misguided troop surge has failed." Next question: How soon will Bush attack Iran?
On Tuesday, Sept. 11, the Planning Commission is scheduled to hear and may vote on whether the city will grant precedent-setting variances to the Waterfront Overlay for a proposed three-tower, 200-foot condo project at 200/333 E. Riverside, on the shores of Lady Bird Lake. The session is at 6pm at City Hall. – Katherine Gregor
According to a group of researchers at the University of Washington, the Austin Independent School District does not distribute its funds equally across the district. The study, which looked at the four largest school districts in Texas, found that while the state has created greater equity among districts in Texas, that has not translated into greater equity between schools within districts. The study looked at how much each school would be expected to get according to its particular demographics; for instance, two schools with an equal number of poor students or English-language learners should get the same amount of money. Instead, the study found that a third of Austin schools received at least 15% more or less funds than they should have. Some of this is due to differences in teacher salaries, but, by and large, the study failed to find school characteristics that explained the discrepancies, concluding that "we have to question whether [the funding differences are] driven by a district strategy at all." – Michael May
AISD schools that have failed to meet Adequate Yearly Progress under the No Child Left Behind law are required to offer their students free tutoring in reading and math. The service is provided to students at Dobie and Mendez middle schools and Johnston, Lanier, Reagan, and Travis high schools who receive free or reduced lunch. Few students have taken advantage of the offer so far, however. In order to boost the numbers, AISD is working with truancy judges in the schools' attendance areas to encourage truant students to sign up for tutoring. AISD is also holding a fair this weekend, where parents can meet the state-approved providers, which include private companies, community organizations, and public schools. The fair will be held 9:30am-noon on Saturday, Sept. 8, at the Delco Center (4601 Pecan Brook Dr.). For more info, parents can talk to their school guidance counselor or call Ralph Huhn at 414-0012 or Julie Lyons at 414-3280. – M.M.
Doing the math, it looks like Downtown street construction could be continuing well into 2010 and beyond. At a recent City Council meeting, chief engineer Bill Gardner said that improvements to Brazos likely would not get under way until after the 2009 legislative session. Those will be followed by improvements to Colorado, if the city can find the funding. The general plan is to work upstream from Lady Bird Lake on the street grid. The two-way conversion of Cesar Chavez is under way and expected to take another four months. Improvements to Second Street are expected to take most of the 2008 calendar year, according to Gardner's projections. – Kimberly Reeves
Consultants have drafted an initial list of short-term projects to improve the Barton Springs Pool. In this case, "short-term" means that the proposed 21 minor projects would be completed over the next one to three years. At a stakeholder meeting last week, consultant Al Godfrey noted the top short-term priorities: study of the pool's circulation patterns, addressing the tree growth on the grounds, and burying overhead wires underground. While this week's meeting was fairly tame, the Save Our Springs Alliance still is grousing that financial numbers aren't attached to the various projects yet, failing to give a full picture of what might get done right away. – K.R.
Bicyclist Vilhelm Hesness was killed July 11 when he was struck from behind by a sport utility vehicle, which later flipped over, near the corner of Manchaca and FM 1626. Now, more than eight weeks later, the Texas Department of Public Safety has given virtually no indication as to how it will handle the case. The accident report, the only data released thus far, noted that "failure to control speed," on the part of the SUV driver, 43-year-old Richard Alan Lee of Austin, was a contributing factor. DPS spokeswoman Lisa Block said the investigation won't proceed until Lee's blood toxicology test, taken on the day of the incident, is completed by the DPS crime lab. Bicycling advocates and those close to Hesness are frustrated with the delay and say the case reinforces the perception that local authorities fail to deliver justice to drivers who injure or kill law-abiding cyclists. "We're very concerned about the delay of this investigation. It should be treated as expeditiously as any other crime," said Robin Stallings, executive director of the Texas Bicycle Coalition, adding that the tragedy is further evidence that Texas needs a bicycle safe-passing law. "It seems like if you're not driving drunk and you don't flee the scene, you get a free pass to run over cyclists." Block said the typical DPS lab backlog is about six weeks, and further delays depend on workload and the priority of the case. Results are expected this week, she said. – Daniel Mottola
AISD students increased their overall SAT scores this year, bucking a state and nationwide decline. Austin students averaged an overall score of 1525 in 2007, up from 1513 in 2006. In Texas, scores dropped an average of three points to 1481 overall; nationwide, scores dropped seven points, to an average of 1511. The increase was most dramatic for Latino students, whose average was up 32 points to 1404 overall, and African-American students, up an average of 30 points to 1258 overall. "We are proud to note the gains made by African-American and Hispanic students," said Superintendent Pat Forgione in a press release. "But is there more work to be done to close the achievement gap? You bet." The district also needs to work harder on encouraging students to take the test. Despite a districtwide goal of increasing SAT participation, only 2,379 students took the tests, which is 97 fewer than last year. – M.M.
On Monday, Sept. 10, the Transportation Policy Board of the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization will hold its only public hearing on a proposed package of more than $1 billion in new roads. Critics believe the fast-changing amendments proposed to CAMPO's Transportation Improvement Program are too long on ill-conceived road projects, too short on transit (none), and insufficiently vetted by public scrutiny. Location: Texas state Capitol, Extension Auditorium Room E-1.004, 6pm. The public comments period closes Friday, Sept. 14. – K.G.
Beyond City Limits
On Aug. 31, Gov. Rick Perry blocked the execution of 30-year-old Kenneth Foster just hours before he was slated to die, accepting a recommendation of the Board of Pardons and Paroles to commute Foster's sentence to life in prison. It was the first time in seven years that Perry issued a death-sentence commutation that was not prompted by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling. Foster was convicted and sentenced to death in a joint trial for the 1996 murder of Michael LaHood in San Antonio. Foster took no active role in the murder, which was committed by co-defendant Mauriceo Brown, but was convicted based on the state's "law of parties," based on the notion that Foster should have anticipated that Brown was going to kill LaHood. (Brown was executed last year.) Foster's case earned worldwide attention – earning support from the European Union, Texas lawmakers, and a bevy of celebrities, including former President Jimmy Carter, who decried the injustice of executing a man who in fact did not kill anyone. Last week the board agreed, voting 6-1 to recommend a sentence commutation, which Perry granted. Interestingly, Perry did not mention in his public statement the law of parties. Instead, he said he was "concerned" about Texas law that allows capital murder defendants to be tried together, suggesting that was an issue "the Legislature should examine." For more on the case see, "Wrong Place, Wrong Time," Feb. 11, 2005. – Jordan Smith
Lago Vista Pet Adoption and Welfare Services, now Lifelong Friends Pet Adoptions, located at 20803 FM 1431, escaped extinction in July after a successful fund drive raised enough money to keep its doors open and effect a transition to a totally independent, nonprofit, no-kill shelter staffed by volunteers and funded by donations. "Thanks to your generous support, we'll continue to take the same great care of animals that find their way to us," reads a notice on the website, www.lvpaws.org. The new name reflects a renewed mission: to help adoptable pets find a loving "forever home." LFPA will continue to rescue and care for stray and abandoned dogs and cats, as well as educate the public about responsible pet ownership, which includes the resolve to spay/neuter their pets. The facility advertises itself as "not the average shelter" because it will not "participate in the killing of hundreds of healthy, homeless animals," the website announcement states. As PAWS, the facility cared for more than 2,000 animals since opening in 1997. The organization received funding for medical and spay/neuter services through grants from PetSmart, the Lower Colorado River Authority, and state license plates. Over the years, the shelter has improved, says the website, "by the grace of fundraisers like the silent auction, garage sales, dog walks, and the generous assistance of our many supporters." For more info, call 512/267-6876 or see www.lifelongfriends.org. – Patricia J. Ruland
Two years ago, almost to the day, Washington Humane Society Chief Operating Officer Adam Parascandola arrived in Katrina-ravaged New Orleans to rescue stranded pets. He and Cory Smith of the Humane Society of the United States pitched a tent and began ferrying animals by boat to safety, then by car to a Gonzales, La., equestrian center he calls "our version of the Astrodome" in his dispatch, "A Diary From the Disaster." This and other compelling accounts were re-released at www.humanesociety.org last week to commemorate what is arguably the largest animal-rescue effort in American history, of about 10,000 dogs, cats, and other critters, according to HSUS. On Aug. 29, HSUS also issued a post-disaster progress report. "No one was fully prepared to deal with Katrina," said Wayne Pacelle, HSUS president, "but since 2005, federal and state policies have changed." In 2006, the HSUS-backed Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards Act passed, and 16 states have since put some teeth in their own animal-rescue laws. In addition, the HSUS has allocated $34.6 million in disaster aid, including $8.35 million to rebuild 45 Gulf-region animal shelters, and held workshops on preparedness in 26 states. "It's much easier to do the work before a disaster strikes than after," Pacelle said. – P.J.R.
On the climate-change front, mega-utility TXU made front-page news this spring when it announced it would drop plans for eight of 11 highly polluting coal-burning power plants and undertake reforms like lowering its sky-high rates, as part of a proposed buyout by two private equity firms. This Friday, when TXU's shareholders vote on the deal, environmental watchdog groups are calling for a rejection of the deal unless the utility's sweet-sounding promises are put in writing. Among the demands: Public Citizen and the Sustainable Energy and Economic Development Coalition are calling for TXU to formally withdrawal state air-permit applications for its eight supposedly dropped plants, applications that are now only suspended. The groups also urge TXU to reflect promised reductions in mercury emissions, as well as global warming reforms, in plans for its three remaining plants – especially the huge, two-unit Oak Grove plant, regarded as an imminent air-quality threat to Austin and a carbon-dioxide train wreck. The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now is calling on TXU Chief Executive Officer John Wilder to apply some of his estimated $270 million in stock profits from the deal toward extending to five years a promised 18-month discount for low-income customers. Finally, the Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility, described on its website as an "international coalition of 275 faith-based institutional investors," is calling for "quantitative goals ... to reduce mercury and total CO2 emissions to below 2004 levels." – D.M.