Quote of the Week
"You know, there's a first time for everything. I was struck by Council Member [Sheryl] Cole's comments about ... the first African-American city manager, and I certainly understand the significance of that. There always has to be a first in order for there to be a second. I understand that, and I understand the responsibility that comes with that. And I certainly intend to stand very tall in that regard." – From the acceptance speech of Marc Ott, Austin's new city manager
Amid a week of wet, cold January weather, Austinites honored the memory of Martin Luther King Jr. in a march through town and a celebration at Huston-Tillotson University.
The Citizens' Bond Advisory Committee to the Austin Independent School District board held its final meeting Tuesday night to discuss recommendations for the proposed May interim bond election, battling the perennial constraints of too many needs and too few resources. See "Point Austin."
In a brazen attempt to confuse already addled voters, the city's public-safety unions issued endorsements for the May 10 City Council elections, even though we're still trying to determine who's running in the March 4 party primaries.
The Austin legislative delegation – red and blue – has united against the plan by the State Preservation Board to remove the Capital Metro bus stop from 11th Street in front of the Capitol grounds. The busy stop serves at least 1,400 riders on a typical weekday, providing a direct stop to 27 different routes and effectively serving as a transfer point for 20 other routes nearby. The board says the stop must be removed to facilitate what it says are needed security upgrades to the Capitol. In a letter to Gov. Rick Perry, the eight lawmakers serving the city of Austin called for reconsideration of the issue and wrote, "[O]f concern to us is that the decision to move this Capital Metro bus stop from its current and long-time location was made without input from Capital Metro, the City of Austin or the hundreds of citizens who use this stop daily." The new security plan calls for all Capitol traffic to exit through the south gates, and the board demanded the stop's removal because of fears that buses stacking up at Congress and 11th would block that gate. The legislators refuted that: "Many of us in the delegation exit the south gate of the Capitol at all times of the day and night, and never once to our knowledge has the exit been blocked by bus traffic." – Lee Nichols
Charged with finding ways to "transform Austin into a world class bicycling city," by creating and promoting the best environment for the friendly coexistence of bicycle riders and other transportation users, the city's Street Smarts Task Force has met regularly over the past 10 months to draft a set of recommendations, which council will review for inclusion in the ongoing update of the city's 12-year-old, spottily implemented Bicycle Plan. The task force released a final draft of its recommendations last week, expected to reach council by Feb. 28. The draft is a conglomeration of some of the best ideas of the last several years for increasing local transportation cycling viability and safety that haven't yet found their way into policy. Task force Chair Sara Krause, who bike-commutes into town once a week from Circle C Ranch, thinks "the will of council is there" to make the recommendations a reality and pointed out how complementary the traffic and greenhouse-gas reductions associated with car-to-bike converts are to the city's stated objectives. Check out the Street Smarts draft recommendations at www.ci.austin.tx.us/council/streetsmarts.htm. – Daniel Mottola
Physically weakened, 15 pounds lighter, and more than slightly frustrated, Uri Horesh, an Arabic lecturer at the University of Texas, ended his seven-day hunger strike – a nonviolent protest of the fact that the university does not provide health benefits for same-sex partners of faculty members. However, the university is held accountable to state law, which says coverage can only be provided to an employee's married spouse. (And we all know that Texas voters in 2005 overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment to define the word "marriage" as "a man and a woman" only.) Horesh, though eating again without an adjustment in university policy, believes his strike did much for visibility and exposure of the need for change concerning this issue. "[F]rom now on, same-sex spousal benefits at the University of Texas is an issue at the forefront of the public discussion in this community," he said in a statement. "The people in charge of diversity and institutional equity at UT will now have to begin delivering their promise and live up to their job titles. Because we are now a large group, a diverse one at that, of people who are on the lookout." – Kate Getty
AISD trustees appointed two new administrators at their meeting last Monday. Texana Turner will take on the position of director of middle grades at the Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders. Turner is a former teacher and has been assistant principal and principal of Sims Elementary since 1999. Nancy Johnston Phillips has been appointed director of state and federal accountability. Phillips has been the director of ESL and bilingual programs/instructional technology at the Corsicana Independent School District and an adjunct professor at Texas A&M University-Commerce. – Michael May
Beyond City Limits
Former Bastrop Co. Sheriff Richard Hernandez and current Precinct 1 Commissioner David A. Goertz pleaded guilty on Jan. 22 to charges of official corruption in connection with allegations that they'd misused taxpayer funds and other resources – including inmate labor and county vehicles. Under the terms of his plea agreement, Hernandez, who served as sheriff from 1997 until resigning his office after he was indicted in May, will serve 90 days in jail and 10 years on probation and will forfeit his peace officer's license, the Texas Attorney General's Office announced Tuesday. Hernandez, who, among six felony charges, was accused of using inmate labor and county materials to install doors on a barn located on his private property, will pay $16,000 in restitution to the county. Goertz, who took office in 2005, pleaded guilty to a class A misdemeanor for "abuse of official capacity," also connected to the misuse of inmate labor (notably, to perform "electrical wiring projects" at his private residence) and other county "equipment and materials." He received a probated jail sentence and must pay $1,499 in restitution, plus a $1,500 fine, and must perform 120 hours of community service. – J.S.
Georgetown City Council put out a fire Tuesday, as another roared. Responding to protests over an ordinance that would require employers to certify employees' legal status, the council approved, to a standing ovation, a dampened requirement that contracts should comply with state and federal law. Earlier that day, Texas Civil Rights Project Director Jim Harrington announced the Texas Indigenous Council had filed suit alleging the city had violated ordinance protesters' rights, when on Jan. 8 police threatened permitless protesters, some carrying signs reading, "Honk for Justice," with arrest. The complaint also slams a catch-22 stipulation for a 30-day notice of a protest "event" as implausible, because agendas change weekly. "The history of the United States is filled with examples of spontaneous ... peaceful demonstrations," the complaint states. Moreover, there is time to deny a permit to "suppress political expression." A sense of "subliminal racism" is pervading the legal status flap, Harrington said, and no wonder. In support of the beefier ordinance, the tad reactionary blog Williamson Republic (www.williamsonrepublic.com) screamed, "A large percentage of the felony indictments in this county are made on people ... suspected to be illegal." In addition, protesters reported they'd been labeled at City Hall the not-so-subtle pejorative "Mexican Mafia." – Patricia J. Ruland
Audience members at a Pedernales Electric Cooperative meeting Monday asked members of the board – especially the advisory board – to resign their posts and allow the beleaguered, massive, rural co-op to address the issues posed by the recent member lawsuit that revealed widespread credit-card abuse and inflated salaries among top officials. The 16-member board did not respond to any of the comments – some kind and others cruel – though members did applaud an audience member who said the co-op members were not fully to blame for the problem and should not be forced to resign. One speaker noted that the board had not followed Open Meeting laws in voting on unposted business, but counsel Walter Desmond said the co-op structure is not regulated under the Texas Open Meetings Act. Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, has pledged Lege meetings on the co-op; his office says he's waiting for interim charges from Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst. – Kimberly Reeves
The state of Texas will soon begin to test high school athletes for steroids, now that a testing services provider has been selected. State officials announced Tuesday that they selected the National Center for Drug Free Sport, a provider of testing services for the National Collegiate Athletic Association, to test some 23,000 student athletes for performance-enhancing drugs. The Texas program will be the largest in the country. The Lege had hoped for testing to begin before football season last fall, but there were delays in finding a contractor. – Justin Ward
In the ongoing, slightly scaled-back rush to build new coal-fired power plants in Texas, the state's historically industry-chummy environmental commission has been roundly criticized for failing to assess the cumulative air-quality impact of proposed coal plants, as well as whether they're necessarily based on Texas' true energy needs, prior to handing out new permits. But thanks to language written into the 2008 federal appropriations bill by Waco-area Democratic Rep. Chet Edwards, the federal Government Accountability Office will be called in to conduct such a study. Among Edwards' concerns, as the Environmental Protection Agency prepares to tighten ozone pollution standards, is that Waco and several other cities statewide (including Austin) will become federal violators, forcing local governments to take costly countermeasures. Edwards says the study should analyze cumulative emissions in Central Texas from existing and planned coal burners for an entire ozone season. Currently, permitting procedures only address cumulative impacts within 37 miles of a plant. Gov. Rick Perry reportedly called for GOP attacks on an earlier version of the bill, due partially to its focus on not-yet-regulated carbon-dioxide emissions, apparently fearing the results could somehow make Texas look worse than its present status as the nation's No. 1 emitter of CO2. – D.M.
Also in the air: "In Texas, we've got a state environmental agency more interested in serving industry than in enforcing our pollution laws," said Environmental Integrity Project senior attorney Ilan Levin in a statement. "This is a state renowned for lax environmental enforcement, issuing weak permits, and basically thumbing its nose at federal law, so we're asking EPA to do its job." Levin fled a petition this week with the EPA on behalf of several environmental nonprofits, alleging that the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality routinely violates the Clean Air Act and its own air-quality programs through wimpy permitting decisions concerning power plants and other large polluting facilities. Environmental Defense Regional Director Jim Marston said the TCEQ's failure to consider the best and cleanest technology in four recently issued coal-plant permits, per the Clean Air Act, ultimately prompted the petition. It asks that the EPA use its authority to impose one or more of the following sanctions: Prohibit construction of new large power plants or refineries, withhold highways funds, or implement reduction of offsets from other pollution sources in the state. For more, see www.texas.sierraclub.org. – D.M.
Veteran newspaper journalist Terri Burke has been named executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, replacing former state ACLU leader Will Harrell, who left the post last year to take on the job of chief ombudsman for the Texas Youth Commission. Burke, most recently editor of the Abilene Reporter-News, was a deputy managing editor of the Austin American-Statesman in the mid-Nineties. She was selected for the job from a pool of 50 applicants, ACLU board President Paul Asofsky told the Reporter-News. Burke told the Abilene daily she applied for the job because it seemed like a continuation of her "life's work" in journalism. "I wanted to be a journalist because I thought journalism was a way to further the democratic process," she said. "At its heart, journalism is about the First Amendment. All my life, I've been interested in those kinds of issues." – J.S.
On Jan. 22, the 35th anniversary of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court abortion decision in Roe v. Wade, the national Planned Parenthood Action Fund announced its intention to step into the electoral ring in an effort to bring 1 million voters to the polls in November – a plan dubbed the One Million Strong Campaign. "Under President Bush, women have seen access to basic health care like birth control become increasingly unaffordable and inaccessible. ... And now they've seen the White House and state governments pour more than $1.5 billion into ineffective and dangerous abstinence-until-marriage programs that do nothing to prevent unintended pregnancies," PPAF President Cecile Richards said in a press release Tuesday. "To keep our doors open and continue serving [millions of women], it's clear that we need to step into the electoral arena. ... Women voters and young adults already trust Planned Parenthood's health information – and this year they'll be able to rely on the Planned Parenthood Action Fund for election information." The goal, of course, is to elect pro-choice candidates during the fall's general election, Richards said. For more on the new campaign, see www.plannedparenthoodvotes.org. – J.S.