Quote of the Week
I treat my subjects – servants, children, wife – with a firm but gentle hand. Noblesse oblige!
– Attorney Bill Aleshire, quoting Mr. Banks of Mary Poppins ("The Life I Lead") on City Manager Toby Futrell's noblesse oblige: "This attitude that those in power should direct people's lives and should protect people from themselves."
After more than 40 years of operation and a couple of decades of neighborhood protest over noise and pollution, the city's Holly Street Power Plant was shut down late Sunday night, with current plans for a park to take its place. Just in time for gentrification!
Despite U.S. Supreme Court accepting an appeal on the constitutionality of lethal injection, presiding Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Sharon "the Executioner" Keller personally blocked a last-minute death row appeal Sept. 25 by refusing to extend office hours or even consult the judge responsible for the case, reported the Statesman Wednesday. "We close at 5pm," Keller said, and Michael Richard was executed that evening.
A coalition of neighborhood groups and animal advocates sued the city this week, charging that the decision to move the Town Lake Animal Center to the Eastside was made without adequate public input or City Council discussion and appears to have violated the state Open Meetings Act. See "Animal Shelter Lawsuit."
"You might recognize me. I used to be the next president of the United States." With these words, former Vice President Al Gore began a presentation of his traveling lecture, An Inconvenient Truth, at the Erwin Center on Oct. 1. Receiving standing ovations before and after his speech, Gore presented new evidence on the climate crisis, including photos of unprecedented shrinkage in the polar ice caps and catastrophic new droughts in Ghana. It wasn't all gloom and doom, however. While admitting frustration that the message still seems to face resistance despite an almost unprecedented consensus in the academic community, Gore said the situation is still salvageable. He singled out Mayor Will Wynn for praise for presenting his own version of the lecture repeatedly in the Austin area and applauded Austin for being one of 600 cities to have adopted the Kyoto Protocol to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, the global climate agreement the U.S. has signed but not ratified. For more on Gore's visit, see "@Chronic ." – Richard Whittaker
Attorney Gerry Hebert, who argued the Texas redistricting case before the Supreme Court, has been retained by the city of Austin to work on a possible single-member district map. Hebert, who addressed the Charter Commission last week, said single-member districts boost minority participation initially – once candidates consider the district to be a "winnable" race – but participation often levels off after an incumbent is in office. Given the scattering of Austin's African-American and Hispanics across the city, Hebert is likely to draw districts where the majority is minority – possibly a combination of African-American and Hispanic or Hispanic and Asian – so minority vote is the deciding factor in the outcome of the election. The next meeting of the Charter Commission will be Oct. 10. – Kimberly Reeves
The Music Commission has raised a new twist on the proposed panhandling ordinance, asking what impact the ordinance proposal might have on street musicians, or, in the parlance of the music world, "buskers." To the Music Commission, buskers are a viable and important part of Austin's eclectic Downtown music scene. After some discussion with Austin Police Department's Downtown beat officers at this week's meeting, however, it was clear no one was quite sure whether the city's current solicitation ordinance – which frowns on sitting or lying on the sidewalk and permits no solicitation signage or amplification of music – is being consistently enforced when it comes to street music. Chair Brad Stein said it's important for the Music Commission to follow up with council on how street music and the amendment to the solicitation ordinance might interact. – K.R.
The stakes couldn't be higher, Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, told parents and students at a crowded town hall meeting at Johnston High School Tuesday night. East Austin's Johnston, which has faced four consecutive years of low test scores, faces imminent closure by the state at the end of this year if the school can't turn around its academic record. At the meeting, principal Celina Estrada-Thomas was celebrating even the smallest victories at her small high school of only 703 students, including an effort that has rolled back the dropout rate from 16% to 5.3%. She pledged an intense focus on instruction this year. "We're in it to win," Estrada-Thomas told the crowd. During open comments directed to acting Education Commissioner Robert Scott and his staff, parents and community members mainly chastised themselves for failing to get involved and keep their children in school. – K.R.
On a related note, as the Austin Independent School District has learned in recent years, neighborhoods don't like to hear that the district plans to close their local school, even if it is underenrolled or low-performing. This year, AISD is trying to bring the public into the process before any decisions are made. An online survey, created by the Community Committee on Neighborhoods and Schools, is an attempt at collective brainstorming among parents and other school stakeholders on different ways to facilitate discussion within the district on issues of overcrowding and underutilization. According to AISD, three of its 110 campuses are at more than 125% capacity, and 23 are at less than 75% capacity. The committee will discuss how to identify schools that are underutilized or overcrowded, what to do about them, how to make sure the community feels part of the decision, and what other organizations should be brought in to the process. "The citizens of Austin deserve an opportunity to influence the decision-making process and we want the public to take an active role," said committee Co-Chair Paul Saldaña in a press release. The survey is at www.austinisd.org/tellaisd. The committee, created last December in the wake of the debate over the repurposing or closure of Becker and Oak Springs elementaries, will hold a community forum from 6 to 8pm Tuesday, Oct. 9, in the Pierce Middle School cafeteria, at 6401 N. Hampton. – Michael May and Justin Ward
We're certain there's more to this story than what's in these few lines, but Austin PR doyenne Kerry Tate has sold her TateAustin agency and launched a new civic-oriented venture, aptly named Civic Interest. TateAustin has since been renamed TateAustinHahn – for Jeff Hahn, the new owner of the long-established firm. Tate remains at the agency, but her primary focus now is her new start-up. Hahn, who joined the firm a year ago, hails from the corporate world, most recently as a communications exec with Motorola and Freescale. – Amy Smith
In the bicycling fatality case of Vilhelm Hesness – killed July 11, when he was struck from behind by a sport utility vehicle while riding lawfully near the corner of Manchaca and FM 1626 – the Texas Department of Public Safety issued an arrest warrant Monday for the SUV driver, Richard Alan Lee of Austin. Lee is charged with intoxication manslaughter, a second-degree felony punishable by up to 20 years in prison. According to the DPS arrest affidavit, Lee was under the influence of five prescription drugs, including muscle relaxants and sedatives such as Soma, and Xanax. After striking Hesness, Lee's vehicle overturned, and he was taken to Brackenridge Hospital and later released. His blood toxicology test took the DPS crime lab at least 10 weeks to process before any formal charges were filed. At press time, the DPS could not locate Lee. This angered friends of Hesness and cycling advocates, who were frustrated by the length of the investigation and have long decried a lack of enforcement against motorists who injure or kill cyclists. The case will be prosecuted by the Travis Co. District Attorney's Office. – Daniel Mottola
August behaved more like summer than the preceding two months, with slightly warmer and dryer weather, but Kill-a-Watt Challenge participants continued to save electricity despite the temptation to blast their air conditioners. In the process, they used 384,036 fewer kilowatt hours than last year – a 12.8% decrease, which translates into 245 fewer tons of carbon-dioxide emissions and $37,000 in savings. Now that September has ended, so has the Kill-a-Watt Challenge, and Austin Energy is tabulating the final results, determining both last month's winners and who will win the whole-summer prizes for the most savings June through September. Check out austinchronicle.com/watt for updates, as well as the usual green-event listings, tips on energy saving, and details about how August's top players achieved their results. And now, without further ado, the first-place champs:
Homeowner: David McGough (81.9% savings)
Renter: Barbara Nugent (84.9%)
Business (by percent): Delta Sigma Phi (40.3%)
Business (by amount): 21st Street Co-op (6,360 kilowatt-hours)
Neighborhood (by percent): North University (37.3%)
Neighborhood (by amount): Upper Boggy Creek (22,093 kwh). – Nora Ankrum
Beyond City Limits
Williamson Co. Commissioners Court voted Tuesday to draft 365-day termination notices effective Oct. 2 to Corrections Corporation of America and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the county's partners in operating the T. Don Hutto Residential Facility in Taylor – disparaged worldwide as a "kiddie prison" – but not due to philosophical differences over jailing minors. "The court supports the federal government's stand on immigration," stated County Judge Dan A. Gattis, adding, "This is not about immigration; it is about potential liability." Commissioner Cynthia Long reaffirmed the little-known ICE rationale that Hutto was started in order to rescue children trafficked by "coyotes." Paradoxically, another raison d'être voiced by Long was that Hutto keeps families together. And Hutto detainees are not mistreated, she insisted. "It's better than living in a cardboard box under a bridge," Long asserted. Once revised provisions are ratified next week, CCA will pay any Hutto legal bills and the salary of a new "monitor." Will this amount to the fox guarding the big house? No, says Public Information Officer Connie Watson, because the monitor "will be working for the county." Finally, a year's notice will give ICE enough time to "get its ducks in a row," Gattis said. So, the days of locking up kids in Hutto might not be numbered after all. – Patricia J. Ruland
Members of the State Board of Education are looking for new ways to fund facilities for the state's charter schools. At last week's SBOE meeting, Chair Don McLeroy said he intended to send a letter to House Speaker Tom Craddick asking for an interim committee to study the issue of facilities funding, the Achilles' heel of even the most successful charter schools in the state. Already, board member David Bradley, a major charter-school supporter, has proposed finding some sort of funding vehicle, within the Permanent School Fund, to provide bonding support for charter-school facilities. Bradley and others on the board also support a 10-year renewal term for charters, so they can secure bonding support for schools and facilities. A total of 273 charters are currently active in the state, leaving the SBOE with only four more charters to award before the state hits the cap imposed by the Legislature. – K.R.
It could be a rough election year for U.S. Sen. John Cornyn. Not only is he being treated as a high-profile target by the Democrats, and whoever wins their primary race between state Rep. Rick Noriega, D-Houston, and San Antonio lawyer Mikal Watts, but he also has a new GOP primary challenger – Larry Kilgore. After coming in a distant second to Gov. Rick Perry in the 2006 gubernatorial primary, the self-proclaimed God-fearing man is back, with his strict biblical Christian policy slate drawn directly from the Ten Commandments. In addition to comparing abortion to the Holocaust and calling for thieves to be flogged, Kilgore is also the only candidate opposed to the state paying for prisons and public education (which he calls "government indoctrination of children"). But what could raise the most electoral eyebrows are his calls for Texas to secede from the U.S. immediately. – R.W.
Residents from the South Texas town of Goliad, about 70 miles north of Corpus Christi, have banded together to oppose one company's plans to renew large-scale uranium mining operations in the county. Goliad's county judge, Commissioners Court, Chamber of Commerce, and Groundwater Conservation District, as well as several private landowners, declared their opposition to new mining operations at a press conference last week alongside the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club. The group will allocate up to $200,000 to contest the permit application the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality must approve before Uranium Energy Corporation can commence planned in situ mining, which consists of leaching uranium ore from drilled injection wells using liquid chemical solutions. UEC says the area has been under extensive exploration since the 1970s, and by the time the company acquired the property, more than 550 exploration holes had been drilled, totaling 250,000 feet. "Our groundwater is the lifeblood for Goliad County," said Art Dohmann, president of Goliad County Groundwater Conservation District. Locals fear mining would strain groundwater supplies used for agriculture and lead to pollution. The Sierra Club reports some residents have experienced clogged, radioactively contaminated wells after UEC began drilling exploration wells. One resident's well is said to contain 300 times the allowable limit of Radium 226, a radioactive carcinogen. – D.M.
On Oct. 1, a federal judge in San Francisco extended by a maximum of 10 days a temporary restraining order blocking the Department of Homeland Security from sending out "no match" Social Security letters to employers across the country. The notices themselves are nothing new; however, a new version, intended to be an immigration-enforcement tool, obliges employers either to fix a Social Security data discrepancy in 90 days or fire the worker the letter is about. The notices used to simply point out name and other discrepancies to employers. "More than 70% of SSA discrepancies refer to U.S. citizens, but the DHS regulation would encourage employers to fire any worker based on these erroneous discrepancies, especially if she has an accent or is perceived to be foreign born," said AFL-CIO President John Sweeney in a press release, which charges that "the misguided rule violates the law and workers' rights, imposes burdensome obligations on employers, and will cause discrimination against workers who are perceived to be immigrants." The DHS says the letters are simply intended to remind employers of the consequences of hiring undocumented workers. – Cheryl Smith