Quote of the Week
"Even though the Court may not agree with the results of the City's interpretation of the ordinance, it is for the City Council, not this Court, to change the ordinance." – Judge Orlinda Naranjo, ruling against Responsible Growth for Northcross in its lawsuit to stop the construction of a Wal-Mart Supercenter at the former Northcross Mall
Responsible Growth for Northcross lost its lawsuit against the city to stop construction of a Wal-Mart Supercenter, as Judge Orlinda Naranjo ruled that city ordinance doesn't require public hearings on the project. See "Judge Rules Against RG4N in Wal-Mart Lawsuit."
A Travis Co. grand jury indicted former Convention Center Director Robert Hodge on 16 counts of "tampering with a government record" (i.e., customer surveys) but not on any counts related to financial crimes. See "Hodge Indicted for Altering Convention Center Surveys."
City plans for Downtown's Seaholm/Green neighborhood are rapidly shifting: The central library may now get its own site, and Green may be ripe for development in the next few months. See "Seaholm and Green District: Changes Afoot."
We're No. 1! While national execution rates continue to drop, Texas can boast another first: For the first time in the modern history of capital punishment – and leaping from an annual average of 37% – more than 60% of the year's executions occurred in the Lone Star State.
On Dec. 20, in an unexpected move, the city's Charter Revision Committee voted 4-2 to recommend to City Council that a referendum on single-member districts be placed on next spring's municipal ballot. The committee was tasked with bringing its recommendation to council by late January, but following the committee's review of an online survey that reflected majority support for a charter ballot on districting, members voted to make the recommendation and canceled their final two meetings. Committee Chair Gus Garcia, a former mayor of Austin, said that in addition to the survey, members considered that a charter change (affecting appointment of the city auditor) will already be on the 2008 ballot, and another such vote could not take place before 2010. "There's not been a dramatic shift [in support for districts], but I believe the politics have changed sufficiently to make such a change," Garcia told Naked City. He said that to draft the ballot, council would have to decide what form the districting would take (for example: six districts, two at-large seats, and a mayor) and that the committee would submit all the versions that have been proposed. "There's more information than you can shake a stick at," he said. Maps, history, and more information are available at www.ci.austin.tx.us/charter. – Michael King
The University of Texas System is taking steps toward a longtime goal of opening a medical school in Austin by conducting a feasibility study. The Austin Business Journal reported last Friday that UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, at the behest of the UT System, is exploring the idea of expanding into Austin. This comes as welcome news to the Seton Family of Hospitals, which has long promoted Austin as a site for a new medical school. Seton commissioned a study in April that found a medical school in Austin would relieve doctor shortages, not to mention bring $360 million into the local economy. A new medical school isn't going to come cheap, however. According to Board of Regents Chairman H. Scott Caven Jr., Austin would have to rustle up hundreds of millions of dollars from donors if it wants a medical school. – Justin Ward
In other education news, the Austin Independent School District wants parents of current and former students to let them know how they can improve middle schools by filling out an online survey. The survey asks parents to share their perceptions of the academic offerings, student-teacher relationships, social environments, and extracurricular activities at middle schools. The outreach is part of the district's plan to improve middle schools, and a district review has already outlined challenges, such as achievement gaps along ethnic and class lines and discipline inequities that result in African-American students being punished more. The district is establishing a task force that will review parent comments, compare district data to other districts in the state and the nation, and conduct site visits. The survey is the first step in this process and is available at www.austinisd.org. – Michael May
Bill Kirchenbauer is a 54-year-old comedian best known for his role as coach Graham Lubbock on the megapopular Eighties sitcom Growing Pains. He is also a resident of the affluent Austin suburb the Village of the Hills and has blown his whistle on those pesky basketball hoops mucking up his streets; he wants the neighborhood ban on hoops located in front of houses (or visible from the community's private golf course) enforced. While it is a tad ironic Kirchenbauer played a coach on TV and is now campaigning against basketball hoops, the Austin Toros don't think it's a joking matter. The NBA Development League affiliate of the San Antonio Spurs, the Toros have invited Village of the Hills households with children to attend either the team's Dec. 26 or 27 home games for free. "The Toros support healthy kids, and we want to encourage kids to get out and play to offset some of the harmful results of childhood obesity," said Toros Chief Operating Officer Billy Widner. For more on the Toros, see www.austintoros.com. – Mark Fagan
HelioVolt Corp., a homegrown start-up manufacturer of next-generation thin-film solar products, announced Dec. 20 that it will build its first factory in Austin at the planned Expo Business Park near Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. The new solar films have been anticipated as a tipping point technology for solar, given their cheaper and much faster method of production – exactly what's needed to make solar competitive with fossil energy sources. HelioVolt's decision to stay in Austin is a huge boon to local clean-energy economic development efforts. HelioVolt constructs its films from copper indium gallium selenide, instead of silicon, in a process that resembles a printing press. The films are 100 times thinner than today's solar panels, and production is up to 100 times faster, according to a company statement. Most importantly, they can be integrated much more readily into buildings, covering both their sides and roofs. HelioVolt set local venture capital records, closing a recent round of private fundraising with more than $100 million. They also joined the ranks of Google, Yahoo!, Skype, Netscape, and YouTube this year as a recipient of Red Herring magazine's 100 Global Award, recognizing standout tech up-and-comers. HelioVolt says its new factory should add more than 150 local jobs and will begin production by mid-2008. – Daniel Mottola
Austin can expect to see a big boost in the number of green-building projects being completed in coming months. That's because the big bubble of major condominium projects, almost all of them Downtown, is now moving through the city approval process. Downtown building requires a minimum of a one-star green building rating. Also, a large portion of Mueller, which is designated with green building standards in the city's master development agreement, also is coming online. That means any building built Downtown or at Mueller, and that includes Mueller's homes, will be at least 15% more energy-efficient than current city code. Program manager Richard Morgan, who is housed over at Austin Energy, calls this impending green-building bubble "the anaconda that swallowed the pig": a major payoff in energy efficiency that the city can expect to see put on the rolls in coming months. Ultimately, though, it will be council's commitment to ratchet up the city energy code that will yield the most dividends to the city. – Kimberly Reeves
Beyond City Limits
The Texas Medical Board faces accusations its members knowingly abused its complaint system to help insurers trying to avoid paying out on big medical bills. On Dec. 20, the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons filed suit against the board and its members in the U.S. District Court for the eastern district of Texas. The association alleges in the suit that insurance firms would make false anonymous allegations against doctors whose patients ran up long-term bills, leading to malpractice investigations against them and license suspensions. The suit alleges board members did not just know about it but were complicit and that board President Roberta M. Kalafut had her husband file anonymous complaints against rival physicians. The House Appropriations Regulatory Subcommittee held hearings on Oct. 23, during which similar claims were made by doctors from around the state. Rep. Corbin Van Arsdale, R-Tomball, said he had heard reports of doctors fearing retaliation from the board if they complained about it. – Richard Whittaker
U.S. representative and presidential hopeful Ron Paul may be the Republican Libertarians love the most, but that hasn't stopped one running for his District 14 seat. Eugene J. Flynn, an immigration attorney whose platform would "allow those illegally in the U.S. to get right with the law," filed with the Libertarian Party of Texas on Dec. 20. (Paul's staff confirmed he will run again for his seat. Under Texas electoral law, he can run for both president and representative next November.) Explaining his platform, Flynn said in a statement: "I agree with Ron Paul about 80% of the time. The problem is the other 20% is the most important to me, that is, immigration." Flynn tried to run as a Libertarian against Paul in 2006, but the party voted not to contest the race. Libertarian Party of Texas Executive Director Wes Benedict admitted that he himself had donated more than $800 to Paul's presidential campaign. "Nevertheless," he said, "I respect Mr. Flynn for standing up for his principles." – R.W.
Christmas came a little early for the Albuquerque-based Archaeological Conservancy, the self-described "only national non-profit organization dedicated to acquiring and preserving the best of our nation's remaining archaeological sites." UT archeology professor Michael Collins donated a 33-acre archeological site in Bell County, purchased with his own personal savings, to the conservancy. The tract, known as the Gault site, contains important clues about the lives of the Clovis people, a tribe believed to be America's first inhabitants, Collins told the Associated Press. He launched an unsuccessful crusade to raise money to buy the site, but some questioned the value of the space, which has been picked over by amateur treasure hunters. New relics continue to be found, however, and Collins thought the site valuable enough to dip into his own pocket. He declined to say exactly how much he spent on the land. – J.W.
A frazzled yet finalized federal energy bill is headed for President Bush. The legislation most notably increases mandated fuel economy by 40% (the first such boost in 32 years); it also outlaws the inefficient incandescent lightbulb by 2012, tightens efficiency standards for buildings and appliances, calls for energy-usage labels on many products, and requires drastic increases in domestic biofuel production, including noncorn cellulosic ethanol. But thanks to Senate GOP opponents and presidential veto threats, some of the bill's most vital original provisions, such as a 15% nationwide renewable-electricity standard, incentives for plug-in hybrid cars, and a measure to redirect $13 billion in oil-industry tax breaks to key renewable-energy tax credits, had to be dropped from the legislation's final version. The move is seen as a win for the oil and coal industries and a debilitating blow to wind and solar projects nationwide. "I have already met twice with Speaker Pelosi and Global Warming Committee Chair Ed Markey to explore ways to undo the Senate's damage next year," said Austin Rep. Lloyd Doggett. In other energy news, the Senate has closed the so-called Enron loophole, as part of the pending farm bill, restoring federal government oversight to detect and prevent manipulation in unregulated electronic energy markets. – D.M.
"Storms with extreme amounts of rain or snowfall are happening more often across most of America, consistent with the predicted impact of global warming," according to new report "When It Rains, It Pours," released recently by Environment Texas. The report analyzed daily precipitation records from 1948 through 2006 at more than 3,000 weather stations in 48 states. "Consequences of increasingly intense rainstorms may include flooding, crop damage, pollution of waterways with runoff, and erosion," read the report, which noted that during the 20th century, floods caused more property damage and loss of life than any other natural disaster in the United States. In Texas, heavy rainfalls are now 28% more frequent than they were 60 years ago, the report said. But more rainfall doesn't necessarily mean more available water, according to the report. Scientists expect extreme downpours to punctuate longer periods of relative dryness, increasing the risk of drought. Read the full report at www.environmenttexas.org. – D.M.
The Environmental Protection Agency will award $3 million in grants this year as part of its Community Action for a Renewed Environment program, designed to assist communities by providing information about the pollution risks they face, as well as the funding needed to address those risks. CARE also offers EPA technical assistance resources to find ways to reduce toxic exposures through collaborative action at the local level. A few examples of regional CARE programs include educational outreach to school children in Laredo, cooperation with auto dismantlers and gas-station owners in Bernalillo County, N.M., and the identification of environmental priorities in flood-damaged St. Bernard Parish, La. City, state, and tribal governments, plus nonprofit organizations and universities, can submit grant proposals until March 17. The EPA will conduct three informational webcasts: Jan. 18, Feb. 11, and Feb. 27. Register for a webcast session at www.cluin.org/studio/seminar.cfm. For more info, see www.epa.gov/care. – D.M.