Quote of the Week
"Beyond the obvious damage to Reed Hall, many have expressed to me their concern that significant damage has been done to their faith in the city process." – John Donisi, president of the Heritage Society of Austin, on the surprise demolition of the former home of preservationist Roberta Crenshaw
City Council meets today (Thursday), with the high-profile item being the public hearing and vote on whether to build the planned new animal shelter in the current Lady Bird Lake location or to move it to Levander Loop in East Austin. See "Beside the Point."
If you haven't registered to vote yet in the Nov. 6 election (state constitutional amendments) – better luck next spring. Registration deadline was Tuesday, Oct. 9.
Most Reassuring Headline of the Month: "U.S. to monitor Blackwater" – from the Saturday, Oct. 6, Statesman, on a front-page story (reprinted from The New York Times) reporting U.S. officials will take a closer look at the mercenary security company (instead of prosecuting it for routine violence and the killing of Iraqi civilians).
State District Judge Mike Lynch said Oct. 8 that he will not grant the state's request for a gag order in connection with the upcoming retrials of yogurt-shop-murder defendants Michael Scott and Robert Springsteen. During a joint pretrial hearing Monday, Lynch said he is not compelled to grant the state's request but did admonish all the lawyers to make a "careful" review of attorney rules of professional conduct and to behave accordingly – wryly reminding the contingent of attorneys assembled in court that he has no intention of (re)trying the cases anywhere but in the courtroom. Scott and Springsteen will be back in court for a second joint hearing on Nov. 14. They were separately tried and convicted of murder in connection with the grisly 1991 quadruple murder inside a North Austin yogurt shop; however, both convictions were ultimately overturned based on prosecutorial tactics, allowed by Lynch, that were found to have violated both men's Sixth Amendment right to confront witnesses against them. The cases are slated for retrial next year. – Jordan Smith
The Community Development Commission Housing Committee, headed by housing advocate Karen Paup, is studying one area left unaddressed by the city's affordable-housing task force: how to preserve the balance of the city's current affordable apartments. Throughout October, the committee will be meeting with focus groups of stakeholders – small-property owners, developers, rental agents, and businesses – to talk about how to minimize the loss of affordable-housing stock, especially close in to Downtown. The issue was brought to the forefront with the closure and demolition of the 141-unit Stoneridge Apartments on South Lamar, which will be redeveloped as an upscale condominium project. The recommendations will be presented to the full Community Development Commission in December and to council in January. – Kimberly Reeves
Education Austin launched a campaign against excessive testing at a news conference in front of Linder Elementary School on Monday morning. The local teachers' union has issues on two fronts: the burdensome testing of special-education students and the excessive testing of all students. Many of the special-education testing requirements – including personalized testing for children with multiple handicaps – come out of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. That's why National Education Association Secretary-Treasurer Lily Eskelsen, out of the union's national office, was on hand to explain NEA's push to reduce high-stakes testing on severely disabled children who are incapable of taking the test. Locally, Education Austin also is calling on the Austin Independent School District to reduce its own testing schedule, which is piled on top of state and federal requirements. Recently passed state law limits the percentage of the class day that can be devoted to standardized testing. According to Education Austin, AISD separates its own testing requirements from that overall standard. Education Austin disagrees with that interpretation of the law. – K.R.
State Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, addressed the growing impact of municipal water rights on her district during a town hall meeting at Cook Elementary School last week. Cedar Park, Round Rock, and Leander – just outside the eastern boundaries of Howard's district – are faced with growing water needs and are proposing a pipeline that would cross Howard's district through Volente to Lake Travis. That would be fine, but the cities in Howard's own district – like Jonestown and Volente – are facing their own water issues. Many of the Lake Travis communities also depend on the water as an integral part of their local industry. "We've got all of these towns in need of water right now," Howard said. "We're suffering the pains of growth with several different jurisdictions looking for access to the same source of water. We've got to find a better way to plan as a region. We all are living here together, and we need to plan as a region." On a related note, Howard was the only lawmaker to sign on to a bill by Rep. Edmund Kuempel, R-Seguin, last session to provide a sunset review of the Lower Colorado River Authority. Howard's remaining town hall meetings are Saturday, Oct. 13, 10am-noon, at the Travis County Northwest Rural Community Center, 18649 FM 1431 in Jonestown; Thursday, Oct. 18, 6-8pm, at Howson Library, 2500 Exposition; and Tuesday, Oct. 23, 6-8pm, at the Old Quarry Library, 7051 Village Center Dr. – K.R.
While violent crime increased just slightly last year nationwide – 1.9% over 2005 – the number of violent offenses reported to Austin Police charted a far more pronounced increase of 7.8%, according to annual crime data released recently by the FBI. Leading Austin's increase in violent crime in 2006 was a nearly 15% uptick in robbery. Robbery also led the national increase, up 7.2% over 2005. But while murder increased slightly nationwide (1.9%), it was down 23% here at home (from 26 to 20). Property crime in Austin remained relatively unchanged, with slight drops in theft reports (including auto) balancing a 2.5% increase in burglary. (Complete FBI crime data is at www.fbi.gov/ucr/ucr.htm.) While the FBI cautions against using crime data alone to create state or city "rankings," researchers with the Improving Crime Data project used homicide rates for 65 of the nation's largest cities, along with demographic data (notably, unemployment and poverty rates), to generate both "raw" and adjusted rankings of city homicide figures. Under the ICD model, Austin's raw murder rate ranks 64th out of the 65 cities; adjusted for demographics, however, Austin's murder rate is up slightly, to 56th. The increase, the researchers note, "means that a city has a higher homicide rate than would be expected based on its level of disadvantage." – J.S.
Beyond City Limits
On the floor of the U.S. House Oct. 3, U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett of Austin was among those calling for a vote to override the president's veto of the State Children's Health Insurance Program bill providing children with health-care coverage. "Republicans charge that we want to help so many children with no insurance and that we want to allow them so much time to reconsider their indifference. We plead 'guilty as charged.' And this president? It is like the book title Dead Certain, but he is also dead wrong," Doggett said. Overriding the president's veto will be a daunting task given the deep partisan lines on the issue. (However, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison voted for the bill.) During his weekly radio address Saturday, Bush hinted at some compromise on the issue but defended his veto, calling the bipartisan bill "deeply flawed." – K.R.
There's more money than ever in Texas elections, according to a new report published by Texans for Public Justice. Entitled "Money in PoliTex" and calculated from candidate filings with the Texas Ethics Commission, it concludes that Texans contributed a massive $157,568,163 to last November's statewide elections – up 32% since the last gubernatorial elections in 2002. The headline news is that, on average, winners outspent their opponents 2-to-1. With $21,091,448, Gov. Rick Perry was the top statewide fundraiser, while Bob "Swift Boat" Perry was top donor with $7,167,064. The biggest single group of contributors? Lawyers and lobbyists, accounting for almost $23 million of all campaign funds. Austin, on paper, is the single biggest donor city, but that figure is skewed by the number of lobbyists here. "Following the money is crucial in a state that puts no limit on the amount big donors can contribute to politicians," said TPJ Director Craig McDonald. The complete report can be downloaded at www.tpj.org/reports/politex2006; for related commentary, see @Chronic. – Richard Whittaker
Members of the bipartisan Texas Legislative Air Quality Caucus sent a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency last week, urging state and federal authority to take a more active role – in policy and in financial support – in helping local areas maintain air-quality attainment levels. The EPA is considering new, lower standards for ozone levels. Austin Reps. Donna Howard and Mark Strama sit on the caucus, which urged the EPA to address the impact of "background emissions" from interstate and intrastate transport on a local region, provide consistent attainment designation dates so neighboring regions' air plans don't conflict, and consider the downwind impact of significant new point sources outside the urban counties, such as TXU's Oak Grove plant. – K.R.
Hoping to make Texas home to the nation's first new nuclear power plants since the 1979 Three Mile Island disaster, NRG Energy, a New Jersey-based utility, filed a full application with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission a couple of weeks ago to add two new reactors to the South Texas Project in Baytown. NRG says the units could power 2 million homes and be online by 2015. Critics are wary, pointing to the rampant delays and cost overruns common during the Seventies nuke boom. The Nuclear Information and Resource Service, a watchdog group, says the future "demands a distributed, sustainable approach to energy," and nuclear power "requires massive taxpayer subsidies and yet still cannot compete environmentally with sustainable energy technologies." The group continued in a statement, "The whole reason NRG is considering new nukes is taxpayer subsidies provided by Congress and the Bush administration," citing tax credits for the first six reactors built, limitations of utility liability for accidents, and "risk insurance" to cover possible delays in the licensing process, such as community lawsuits. NIRS also spotlights the lack of safe disposal methods or a national repository for radioactive waste. The group touted Texas' enormous potential for wind and solar power, arguing that aggressive energy-efficiency programs remain the cheapest, fastest, and cleanest method of addressing both electricity demand and the need to quickly reduce carbon emissions. – Daniel Mottola
The U.S. Supreme Court heard on Oct. 10 the appeal of Texas death row inmate Jose Ernesto Medellin, who argues that the Texas courts have failed to heed the United Nations' International Court of Justice's 2004 finding that the U.S. failed to allow Mexican nationals, including Medellin, detained by law enforcement to contact their consular officials, as required by the 1963 Vienna Convention. In 2005, President Bush tried to get courts to follow the ICJ decision, which named 51 Mexican nationals imprisoned in the U.S. who'd been denied access to Mexican officials. On Nov. 15, 2006, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals rejected Medellin's appeal; in a concurring opinion, presiding Judge Sharon Keller called Bush's actions an "unprecedented, unnecessary, and intrusive exercise of power over the Texas court system," unsupported by the president's foreign-policy powers. Medellin was one of six members of the Black and Whites gang convicted of the 1993 gang rape and murder of two teen girls in Houston. He was convicted and sentenced to death in 1994. – J.S.
Don't look for hunks of horse meat at the neighborhood butcher counter any time soon, but cargoes of the controversial commodity may be allowed to be transported through the state. At the behest of state Rep. Warren Chisum, the Texas Attorney General's Office is helping to flesh out whether state laws prohibiting the sale of horse meat for human consumption would apply to foreign corporations using Texas as a pass-through for immediate export. Chisum cites Chapter 149 of the Texas Agricultural Code, which "criminalizes the sale, exhibit for sale, transfer, or possession of horse meat for human consumption." But his request for an AG opinion also notes that federal law stipulates no such ban and that Texas law permits nonhuman consumption of horse meat as animal feed. His question is whether 1930 federal tariff laws, permitting "in-bond" transport of goods without payment of tariffs or fees, apply to foreign firms transporting horse meat through Texas. Specifically, Chisum writes, "The slaughter and packaging would not be conducted in Texas, the horsemeat would not be offered or exhibited for sale in Texas, and the horsemeat would not be consumed by humans in Texas." – Patricia J. Ruland