Quote of the Week
"This city, to the point of distraction sometimes, loves a conspiracy theory. And if all you hear about this case was what was on RG4N's website and what you read in the Chronicle and what you heard in the media, you would believe that this site plan was approved because the City Council lacks courage, the city staff are feckless developer lackeys, and everybody was just out to get them. ... This site plan was approved because that's what the law required the city to do. Period." – Attorney Casey Dobson, defending the city's Northcross Wal-Mart decision in court Tuesday
The municipal election season has officially begun – with kickoff gatherings or simply announcements by Place 4 hopefuls Robin Cravey and Laura Morrison, Place 3 challenger Randi Shade, Place 3 incumbent Jennifer Kim, and perhaps a couple more wannabes by the time you read this.
Despite some misgivings, the City Council voted 6-1 to renew the contract between the city, the Urban Renewal Agency, and the Austin Revitalization Authority (formed in 1996 to redevelop an area of central East Austin, along 11th and 12th streets). The Urban Renewal Agency says it will likely seek private developers to take on some tracts; the city auditor is reviewing ARA's records pending a decision for an audit.
Austin Police Department investigators have concluded that Sgt. Michael Olsen "violated policy" in the June shooting death of Kevin Brown but could not determine whether Olsen "unnecessarily used deadly force," according to a Wednesday report in the Statesman. Police Monitor Clifford Brown requested an additional review, and City Manager Toby Futrell has agreed, according to the report by Tony Plohetski.
By the time you read this, testimony in Responsible Growth for Northcross' trial against the city of Austin and Lincoln Property Co. will likely be over. RG4N's lawsuit – trying to stop Lincoln's proposed Wal-Mart Supercenter on the former Northcross Mall property – rests on four claims: Lincoln's site plan violates a plat note protecting Shoal Creek, city staff failed to review the site plan for traffic and public-safety impacts, Wal-Mart's garden center is a "conditional use" improperly approved by city staff, and the plan violates the city's Protected Tree Ordinance. If any claim holds up, said RG4N lawyer Doug Young, the site plan must be thrown out and refiled under the city's Big Box Ordinance. Casey Dobson, outside counsel hired to defend the city, counters that Judge Orlinda Naranjo must use a "narrow filter" that recognizes the competence of city staff to interpret its own ordinances and that the proper remedy for errors would be to correct the plan, not trash it. Testimony on Tuesday focused on the first claim: Independent engineer Lauren Ross testified that the project's flood runoff controls do not comply with city code, project site manager Jim Schiesler said he did what city code required, and city engineer Benny Ho said different engineers could come to different conclusions. – Lee Nichols
A former employee of Advanced Micro Devices is suing the company and its local medical contractor, Austin Regional Clinic, claiming exposure to toxic chemicals during her pregnancy caused multiple birth defects in her son. Austin resident Maria Ruiz, who worked in AMD's chip-making plant Fab 14 from 1988 to 2002, filed the claim last week, seeking damages on behalf of her son, Ryan Ruiz, who just turned 16. Ryan was born with a missing lower right arm and "lifelong cognitive deficits," according to the suit filed in Travis Co. District Court. It alleges neither AMD nor physicians who treated Ruiz at Austin Regional Clinic warned the employee about the health risks of pregnant women exposed to such hazardous "clean room" chemicals as ethylene glycol monoethyl ether acetate and 2-ethoxethyl acetate. In a statement, AMD spokesman Travis Bullard said, "We have a long history of supporting independent research on health and safety in semiconductor manufacturing and are confident in our systems and procedures. Our thoughts go out to Ms. Ruiz and her family, but we do not believe there is any connection between Ms. Ruiz's employment with AMD and her son's medical conditions." The petition was filed by the Austin firm of Allison & Ward, which is joined in the case by major litigation firms Levy Phillips & Konigsberg in New York and Thornton & Naumes in Boston. – Amy Smith
If you're a Democrat, you know all too well that the only real impact you're likely to have on the presidential race is during the primaries, so get in on the excitement while you still can, before the prez candidates all but forget about the Lone Star State. Your next opportunity will be this Saturday when Barack Obama makes an appearance at the Backyard for his Countdown to Change event. Doors open at 3pm; tickets are $25 (students $15). See blog.texansforobama.com to buy tickets and for info. For security reasons, do not bring bags to the event. No signs or banners permitted. – L.N.
City Hall's media room was cluttered last week with roadside signs advertising businesses of questionable repute and other fly-by-night endeavors. No, council elections aren't here just yet – the placards were examples of so-called "bandit signs" the city is looking to uproot as part of its proposed Unclutter Austin campaign. The initiative, from Council Members Betty Dunkerley and Mike Martinez, is twofold: By stepping up collection of a largely unenforced registration fee for permitted billboards, the city hopes to fund increased enforcement (removal and citations, when applicable) of the illicit signage. The changes were part of a broader item council passed last meeting. It also seeks to prohibit truck-mounted, traveling billboards; eliminate the right to replace a billboard sign once it's removed; and reduce light pollution from the signs. The recommendations now go to the city manager for drafting and implementation; council isn't expected to give final approval until next year. – Wells Dunbar
With sparse public attendance, the Charter Revision Committee charged with reporting on single-member districts to City Council is looking for more community involvement. To that end, the committee's meeting today (Nov. 15) at 5pm at City Hall will feature a presentation from two KOOP radio hosts who have recently tackled single-member districts: Mark Boyden, producer of neighborhood-association-informed news program A Neighborly Conversation, and Jim Walker. Also up at the meeting is discussion and possible adoption of a time frame for the committee's recommendations to council. For more info, visit www.ci.austin.tx.us/charter. – W.D.
"From rock climbing to white-water kayaking, I know there are residents who have unique ideas for this urban creek-way," City Council Member Sheryl Cole says of Waller Creek – and the city wants to hear your ideas. As they gear up for the Waller Creek Tunnel Project, a $127 million public-works program that will turn the underutilized, flood-prone Downtown creek into a safe and steady stream, officials are looking for input on the creek's look, design, and landscaping, as well as storm-water collection points. The first Waller Creek Design Workshop is Saturday, Nov. 17, 9am-noon at City Hall. For more info, call 974-7139 or visit www.ci.austin.tx.us/wallercreek. – W.D.
The city of Austin has been named a five-star employer by the Employer Support for the Guard and Reserve program, which is run out of the Department of Defense. The program works to resolve conflicts between reserve soldiers, many of whom have been called to fight in Iraq, and their civilian employers, who are required to keep their job open for them when they return. As a five-star employer, the city of Austin provided what EGSR calls an Above and Beyond human-resources policy toward these soldiers. Austin has even hired a veterans ombudsman, Allen Bergeron, to help manage employees who have been called up. On a related note, for info on the correlation between military service and subsequent homelessness, see austinchronicle.com/chronic, Monday, Nov. 12. – Michael May
The Heritage Neighborhood Association has finally triumphed in getting its traffic circle at 31st and West Avenue – desired to help calm traffic, increase safety, and mitigate increased density. Joe and Peter Lamy of Capital City Partners – developers of mixed-use project Guadalupe 31, on Guadalupe between 30th and 31st – pledged $30,000 to cover the cost, but city staff initially denied the neighborhood request nonetheless. The city eventually agreed to put the issue to a neighborhood vote, however, and mailed out 1,400 ballots to residents, businesses, and property owners. More than 200 ballots were returned, with the vote 82% in favor of the traffic circle. The city will use a new, emergency-responder-friendly design from the city of Olympia, Wash., according to the association. (See "Who Squared the Circle at 31st and West?" Jan. 19.) – Katherine Gregor
The UT Board of Regents has named H. Scott Caven Jr., a money manager from Houston, as its new chairman. Caven replaces James Huffines, who has held the position for the past 3½ years. The job is one of the most prestigious state appointments in Texas, even though it requires many long hours and is unpaid. Caven is an old friend of Gov. Rick Perry, who has appointed all of the current regents. He's been the state finance chairman of Texans for Rick Perry for the past six years and has donated $12,000 to Perry's campaigns. At his first meeting as chairman, Caven wants to continue looking at ways to develop the Brackenridge tract, a lake-front property owned by the university. He also said he would emphasize raising admission standards at UT and working with community colleges to find spots for students who need remedial help. But Caven's biggest challenge will be keeping UT financially secure, since the amount coming from state government has shrunk to less than 18%, with little sign of relief coming from the Lege. – M.M.
A recently released Johns Hopkins University study labeled six Austin high schools "dropout factories" as part of a nationwide review of high school retention rates. Akins, Crockett, Johnston, Lanier, Reagan, and Travis were among 1,700 U.S. schools where at least 40% of freshman never make it to their senior year. The news adds insult to injury for Johnston, which earlier this year narrowly escaped closure and was forced to cancel football games after several players became ineligible due to poor grades. Only two other schools in the state had retention rates lower than Johnston, at which only a third of the freshman class graduated during the years studied. In a written statement, Superintendent Pat Forgione called the study "an attack on urban education" and said it was not "steeped in the best practices of research methodology." He added, "[E]ven if the information used to identify schools on the list was accurate, and it is not[,] the study implies that schools are manufacturing dropouts on purpose. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The Austin School District is devoting a great deal of time and resources to dropout prevention and dropout recovery." – Justin Ward
At a parent-teacher association meeting at Johnston High School Tuesday night, Principal Celina Estrada-Thomas assured the audience of about 50 that the school was making "fantastic progress" on test scores. Johnston, after four years of failing test scores, faces possible closure by the state under the accountability system. Estrada-Thomas said attendance remains a problem on the campus, but student performance is improving. She promised a fuller update on the first semester's academics and attendance at next month's PTA meeting. – Kimberly Reeves
Beyond City Limits
Bottled water is typically no better quality than tap water, yet it causes a flood of environmental ills. That's the message Think Outside the Bottle is spreading in its campaign to urge Coca-Cola, bottlers of Dasani water, to disclose the company's water's source. "U.S. corporations are not required to publicly report breaches in bottled water quality the way public systems must. They're turning a public resource into a high-priced commodity," reads a statement from Corporate Accountability International, the nonprofit behind the campaign. Up to 40% of bottled water in the U.S. and Canada is sourced from municipal tap water, CAI says. Making plastic water bottles required 17 million barrels of oil last year (enough fuel for 1 million cars) and generated more than 2.5 million tons of carbon dioxide. What's more, more than 4 billion pounds of plastic bottles ended up in landfills or as roadside litter last year, CAI reports; less than one in five plastic bottles are recycled. After a similar campaign last summer, Pepsi agreed to print "Public Water Source" on its Aquafina labels. Learn more at www.thinkoutsidethebottle.org. – Daniel Mottola
For every two immigrants apprehended during immigration raids, an average of one child is left behind, according to a new study commissioned by the National Council of La Raza and conducted by the Urban Institute. "The results are striking," states the report, entitled "Paying the Price: The Impact of Immigration Raids on America's Children." According to the report, thousands of children who are U.S. citizens or legal residents have already been separated from one or both parents due to deportation, and millions more could face the same fate. "This study is the first to consider the costs of these enforcement choices on innocent children, the most vulnerable members of our society," the report states. "Surely, Americans should be concerned when the effects of enforcing the law is that school systems and child care providers must prepare for the likelihood of substantial numbers of their children being left without care, without warning." Ironically, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement justifies operating detention centers, such as the T. Don Hutto Residential Center in Taylor, by saying they help keep families together. This report documents otherwise. For the full document, see www.urban.org/UploadedPDF/411566_immigration_raids.pdf. – Patricia J. Ruland
Texas teens know they shouldn't drink and drive, but few understand that the law sets higher standards for young and inexperienced drivers. That's the finding of a Texas Transportation Institute survey of 4,400 high-schoolers. Eighty percent of them had either a driver's permit or license, but only around half of those had taken a formal drivers-ed course. Only 7% said they were very aware of the Texas Graduated Driver License, violation of which could result in them losing their license. Asked about the top worst driving habits, 93% knew that drunken driving was a danger, but only 42% realized that driving while texting or using a cell phone increased their risks of a serious crash. Worryingly, only 1% recognized driving at night as more dangerous than daytime driving, even though two-thirds of all crashes involving teen drivers happen between 6pm and 6am. – Richard Whittaker