Quote of the Week
"I'm hell bent on having an election in one year." – Mayor Will Wynn, announcing his goal of getting a local rail proposal on the 2008 November ballot. See "Developing Stories: Wynn Calls for 2008 Rail Vote."
Late Tuesday, Gov. Rick Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, and House Speaker Tom Craddick say they've resolved a monetary crisis for Texas community colleges caused by Perry's June veto of health-benefits funding. More next week, and at austinchronicle.com/chronic.
San Antonio attorney Mikal Watts, one of two early frontrunners to be the Democratic challenger for U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, announced Monday that he's ending his "exploratory" campaign. See "Watts Ends Exploratory U.S. Senate Campaign" for details.
Mayor Will Wynn revealed early this week that he'll make a major push for a November 2008 referendum on a new local rail transit system. See "Developing Stories: Wynn Calls for 2008 Rail Vote " for details.
Here's some quizzical news: DA Ronnie Earle may or may not run for re-election. The Houston Chronicle reports that Assistant DA Rick Reed, who's helping Earle try the case against Tom DeLay, is running for DA because he assumes his boss is retiring. No word from Earle's office at press time.
Trash talk overwhelmed the Travis Co. Commissioners Court agenda Tuesday as opponents of a proposed 75-foot expansion to the BFI landfill in Northeast Austin piled into the chambers for a public hearing. BFI says its landfill, which has drawn consistent complaints from neighbors about odor and sloppy management, will run short on permitted space by 2010. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality must approve its pending expansion permit. For more than four years BFI has offered the county a deal to close by 2015 if commissioners agreed not to fight its expansion at the state level. Opponents, led by the Texas Campaign for the Environment, say BFI shouldn't be rewarded for bad behavior, that it had ample time to find a new site, and that an expansion could diminish BFI's willingness to pursue necessary recycling and composting efforts. Commissioner Margaret Gómez's vote will likely be the decider, with Sarah Eckhardt and Ron Davis opposing the expansion and Gerald Daugherty and Sam Biscoe apparently in support. Opponents delivered an open letter to commissioners signed by more than 70 African-American and Latino community leaders and residents. Read it at www.texasenvironment.org. – Daniel Mottola
The city's proposed solicitation ban, intended to cut down on aggressive panhandling, has died in council – for now. Jennifer Kim, the measure's sponsor, withdrew it Monday, saying she would ask the city manager to draft a "fair, comprehensive approach" to the issue. Saying she understood it was "perceived as going too far, limiting free speech, and was unnecessarily punitive," she described her original intent as cutting down on panhandling near schools and reducing roadside deaths. Noting the 211 panhandling citations issued near schools so far this year, she proposed a package of measures, including working closer with a group that aims to get the homeless and jobless back into work and housing, as well as "more effective enforcement" of existing law. – Richard Whittaker
The owner of the Travis Co. Farmers' Market says he wants Brentwood Tavern to stay, but the restaurant's owners say it's too late, and they're sticking to their plan to close down at the end of today (Oct. 25). After Farmers' Market owner Paz Dhody offered only a month-to-month lease to the family restaurant on Burnet Road, owners Tim Thomas and Kathleen Macek decided to close the business – a decision that raised the ire of neighbors who loved it (see "Naked City" in the Oct. 19 issue). On Monday, Dhody sent a letter to the Chronicle offering "my apology for any misunderstandings to which I have been party" and saying he "now invites The Brentwood Tavern owners to not only see out its lease until the end of May 2008 but to continue thereafter on a year to year lease." But Macek told Chronicle Food Editor Virginia Wood on Tuesday, "It's too little too late – we've already sold half our equipment, found jobs for all of our employees, and booked tickets for a vacation in Thailand." Read Dhody's letter at austinchronicle.com/chronic. – Lee Nichols
Texas Civil Rights Project Director Jim Harrington on Oct. 24 handed the Court of Criminal Appeals a petition signed by nearly 300 legal professionals – including attorneys, former judges, and law professors – asking that the court adopt a rule permitting e-filing of "petitions, motions, and other papers in death-penalty cases." The move comes in response to the Oct. 25 decision by CCA Chief Judge Sharon Keller to close the courthouse door at 5pm, denying attorneys for condemned inmate Michael Richard a chance to file a final last-minute appeal that likely would have spared Richard's life. Instead, because of Keller's actions, Richard was executed. Richard's attorneys were hampered from meeting Keller's arbitrary deadline by a computer malfunction – if the CCA allowed e-filing, Richard's appeal would've made it to the court by 5pm. "To help avoid a recurrence of such a tragic, unnecessary execution," the petitioners are asking the court to "adopt a rule to permit e-filing to facilitate and expedite the filing of papers in death-penalty cases," reads the petition. Indeed, most courts permit e-filing, while others require electronic filing of petitions, Harrington noted. Now it is up to the CCA to decide whether to grant the request; there is no law requiring the court to respond to such petitions. – Jordan Smith
Attorney J. Gerry Hebert will present three hypothetical single-district maps for the city's Charter Revision Committee to consider at a meeting today (Oct. 25). Hebert, who defended the Texas Democrats before the Supreme Court during the Texas redistricting battle, has talked about creating local minority-majority districts, where race would play a dominant factor in the final outcome. It wouldn't necessarily be one race, though. It could be the combined voting strength of Latinos and African-Americans in East Austin or Latinos and Asians in North Austin to elect a preferred candidate. The meeting is at 5pm in council chambers. – Kimberly Reeves
Professor McCracken? Faculty who teach urban design and community and regional planning at UT report that Brewster McCracken has previously approached the university about a possible teaching gig. To get in the groove, the council member will enlighten UT students on Oct. 25 about real-world city planning as a guest lecturer for an Introduction to Urban Studies course. A self-taught enthusiast, McCracken has studied urban planning in the school of hard knocks during his tenure on council. – Katherine Gregor
Parks and Recreation Department Director Warren Struss has announced his retirement after "28 wonderful years," effective Dec. 31. Struss said achieving his two major goals made it an ideal time to retire: in 2004, a Gold Medal Award recognizing PARD as the No. 1 major metropolitan park system in the nation and, on Sept. 25, national accreditation by the Commission for Accreditation of Parks and Recreation Agencies – an honor earned by only 73 U.S. cities. Struss said he's leaving PARD in a strong position, with bond money to fund needed projects, "a successful budget year, and growth and acquisition opportunities." He is also mindful of retiring in step with City Manager Toby Futrell. Parks director is now on the growing list of influential department director positions likely to be left open for a new city manager to fill, in building a fresh city management team. (Stuart Strong will serve as interim acting director.) As for Struss, he plans to take a long sabbatical with family and do some fishing. – K.G.
Four years after a task force on boards and commissions, headed by former Council Member Bill Spelman, was disbanded, council is finally taking a serious look at implementing some of the proposed changes for the city's boards and commissions system. Under the recommendations, presented last week by Assistant City Manager Bert Lumbreras, all boards would consist of seven members serving three-year terms that coincide with the council member who nominated them. Board members would be term-limited to three consecutive three-year terms, though Mayor Will Wynn has some reservations about that. He pointed out that some of the city's best commissioners had served two or three decades. The recommendations will go to the Ethics Commission for a review before returning to council for further consideration. – K.R.
The Old West Austin neighborhood has been designated as one of 10 Great Neighborhoods for 2007 through the American Planning Association Great Places in America program. It was honored for preserving neighborhood character, its commitment to sustainability, and residents' engagement with guiding development. "Old West Austin sets an example for communities across the country of how to protect neighborhood character while managing growth and change," APA Executive Director Paul Farmer said. For more, see www.planning.org/greatplaces/neighborhoods/oldwestaustin.htm. OWA resident Randy Hankamer, an APA member, submitted the nomination, according to Old West Austin Neighborhood Association Steering Committee member Laura Morrison, who also is Austin Neighborhoods Council president and a City Council hopeful in May 2008. – K.G.
If you're following the Austin Chronicle Kill-a-Watt Challenge, you know September was the final month of the summer's energy-saving competition. The challenge began in June, with Austin Energy comparing participants' utility bills this summer to their bills from last year to determine who reduced the most electricity consumption. The unusually cool months earlier in the competition had challengers showing dramatic savings, but the going got tougher as the thermometer soared (in July, participants had an average 19.8% drop in kilowatt usage, while September saw a reduction of only 9.3%). Still, the top challengers continued producing knockout savings in the final round, with neighborhoods and businesses hovering around 30% and individuals reducing their power usage by more than 85%. Stay tuned for final results on overall summer winners – anyone who enlisted by Sept. 20 is eligible to compete, with AE determining whose entire-summer kilowatt consumption fared best over last year. In the meantime, check out the top watt-killers of September: homeowner Joiep Meijer (85.2% savings), renter Alexander Mikheyev (87.3%), businesses SWCA Environmental (29.9%), 21st Street Co-op (14,640 kilowatt-hours), and West Austin Neighborhood Group, the top neighborhood in both percentage saved (32.15%) and total savings (8,924 kwh). – Nora Ankrum
The Texas Education Commissioner has changed the rating for Fulmore Middle School from "academically unacceptable" to "academically acceptable." Austin Independent School District had challenged the initial rating, which was due to the performance of special-education students on the State-Developed Alternative Assessment II, which they take in place of the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills test. Education Commissioner Robert Scott wrote to the district that "the SDAA II results do not necessarily reflect the overall academic performance of Fulmore Middle School." The ruling comes after years of confusion at the state and national level about how to test special-education students and how many students should be allowed to have that designation. – Michael May
A new program in Austin schools aims to inspire students to become lifelong philanthropists. Called a Legacy of Giving, the program combines classroom teaching and real-world giving. It starts this month with a classroom exercise, which asks students to imagine a better world. Next month, the students will put theory into practice by organizing the "Drive," with teams working to collect food and clothing for community groups and being scored based on how many items they can deliver. The program, which runs throughout the year, was created in a collaboration between the Austin Community Foundation, AISD, St. Gabriel's Catholic School, and the Zachary Scott Theatre. – M.M.
Much as we may occasionally ride rough on the editorial board of the Statesman, it does have some fine journalists. So the Chronicle News desk would just like to wish the best to Jason Embry, the daily's education-policy expert and state Legislature-watcher. He's heading to D.C. to become the paper's newest expert on the Austin caucus, replacing current D.C.-watchers Chuck Lindell and Tara Copp. Lindell returns to the Austin office to work on investigative journalism, while Copp has jumped the fence to work for the prestigious Jane's Defence Weekly. – R.W.
Beyond City Limits
Speaker Tom Craddick has announced two new House names for the influential Sunset Advisory Commission, the body that makes recommendations to the Legislature on what state agencies should be reformed, restructured, or dismantled. Reps. Carl Isett, R-Lubbock, and Linda Harper-Brown, R-Irving, will replace the outgoing Vicki Truitt, R-Keller, and Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, and Isett will take over for Sen. Kim Brimer, R-Fort Worth, as commission chair. While known as a fiscal conservative, as a member of the House Appropriations Committee last session, Isett was critical of the dangerous underfunding in many state agencies. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst has yet to make his Senate appointments, but he'll either have to reinstate or replace the outgoing Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso, and John Whitmire, D-Houston. Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen, has made it known, however, that he would like to be appointed, in order to make extensive recommendations about reforming the Texas Youth Commission. – R.W.
Texas RioGrande Legal Aid filed on Oct. 9 a federal suit in Del Rio against three Rio Grande Valley-based companies and the U.S. Department of Labor "for illegally importing more than 400 temporary foreign workers" to Texas from 2001 to 2007, according to a TRLA press release. Filed on behalf of 19 Texas farmworkers, the suit alleges farm- and packing-shed operator Nowell Borders, Mata Trucking Co., and Martinez Packing Co. "manipulated the visa program to obtain cheap foreign labor and avoid providing housing, transportation, and meals to workers." The suit names the Department of Labor as a defendant, claiming the agency failed to protect U.S. workers by not verifying reports that they didn't want the jobs. Asked about the suit, the DOL said it doesn't comment on pending litigation. – Cheryl Smith