Quote of the Week"Three hundred fifty-seven days and counting ..." – U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, reacting Monday after President Bush's State of the Union
• What if the president gave a State of the Union speech and nobody noticed? On Monday night, Bush cited Osama bin Laden as the foremost authority on the U.S. "surge" in Iraq and griped darkly about Iran. The next day's papers were full of Florida. ...
• ... where on Tuesday, John McCain bested Mitt Romney (36%-31%), Rudy Giuliani and sidekick Rick Perry faded into oblivion, and in the unofficial Democratic primary, a huge turnout gave Hillary Clinton (50%) a considerable moral victory over Barack Obama (33%) and John Edwards (14%), who ended his campaign Wednesday.
• Much closer to home, City Council meets today (Thursday) with a heavy agenda – everything from the ongoing Downtown music/noise arguments to the blue-sky plans for Waller Creek. See Beside the Point.
• Austin Fire Department officials revealed that a dispute over music drove former KOOP deejay Paul Feinstein to set fire to the station headquarters earlier in January. Feinstein, who turned himself in voluntarily on Monday, was interviewed Friday by investigators. In the course of the six-hour interview, he told investigators he was "very unhappy" his playlist for the station's nightly off-air, Internet show had been altered. Feinstein left KOOP in December, shortly before the fire, to do "other things." The news comes as a great shock to station members, who recall Feinstein as sociable and well-liked. "The idea that something as minor as a dispute over what music to put in our digital library could possibly trigger someone to set fire to our radio station is unfathomable," KOOP President Andrew Dickens said. – Justin Ward
• The Austin Independent School District took a step closer to an interim bond issue Monday when the Citizens' 2008 Bond Advisory Committee made its recommendations to the board of trustees. Items with a dollar value attached added up to roughly $233 million, mostly to be spent on technology replacements, new science labs to meet increased high school graduation requirements, and urgent renovations and classroom construction. The committee also suggested the district consider some items it did not have estimates for yet, including an early childhood center to relieve overcrowding at Linder Elementary. However, members of both the committee and board said the speed of the committee process and the decision to prepare only an interim bond has left many critical long-term issues unresolved. The board will now enter a series of work sessions and public hearings before making a final decision by Feb. 25 on placing a bond proposal on the May 10 ballot. – Richard Whittaker
• A familiar name in Austin politics will be back on May's municipal ballot: Former City Council Member Raul Alvarez announced Monday that he's running for Place 5 on the Austin Community College board of trustees. Alvarez was on the City Council from 2000 to 2006. Since June 2007, he has been grassroots community coordinator for AISD's Office of Redesign. "Austin Community College is a pivotal part of our educational system, and its importance will only be magnified as the region's economy and the demand for a highly educated workforce continues to grow," Alvarez said in a statement. "My work with AISD has heightened my understanding of the broad range of educational needs in our community, and I believe that by serving on the ACC board I can use my knowledge of our community's diverse needs and my experience in public service to help make the community college branch of our educational system even stronger!" Place 5 was vacated last year by trustee Rafael Quintanilla, who moved from Austin. Whoever wins the May race will only serve the remainder of Quintanilla's term, which expires in 2010. – Lee Nichols
• During oral arguments before a three-judge panel of Texas' 3rd Court of Appeals last week, attorney Terrence Kirk argued that Colton Pitonyak's murder conviction should be overturned because evidence of his crime was illegally obtained by the family of his victim. Pitonyak was convicted last year and sentenced to 55 years in prison for the 2005 murder and mutilation of 21-year-old Jennifer Cave, who was found partially dismembered in the bathtub inside Pitonyak's West Campus apartment. Jennifer had failed to show up to work for her new job – about which she had been excited – which, in part, prompted Cave's mother, Sharon, and Sharon's fiancé, Jim Sedwick, to drive up to Austin from Corpus Christi to look for her. After learning Jennifer had last been seen on Sixth Street with Pitonyak (which Pitonyak had lied about to Sharon) and finding Jennifer's car parked near Pitonyak's apartment, Cave and Sedwick broke into Pitonyak's residence – though police had advised them there was not probable cause to enter the residence. In a pretrial hearing, District Judge Wilford Flowers ruled the family's concern about Jennifer's welfare was enough to justify their search – which, in turn, allowed prosecutors to submit evidence found inside the apartment, including photographs of Jennifer's mutilated corpse. However, Kirk argued that Flowers' was wrong; the family's actions constituted an illegal, warrantless search, he said. The state has said the family's actions were covered by the so-called "emergency doctrine," which excuses otherwise illegal behavior in the face of exigent circumstances – as when someone is threatened by imminent danger. In this case, Kirk says, there was no "objectively reasonable" evidence Jennifer was the victim of violence or was in imminent danger at the time Sedwick and Sharon Cave entered Pitonyak's apartment. – Jordan Smith
• Everybody knows Texas is football country; Phil Rawlins is hoping to turn Austin into fútbol country. The British-born businessman and current Austinite announced last week that he is the proud owner of Austin's newest professional sports franchise, the Austin Aztex. England's Stoke City Potters will serve as a parent club for the Aztex, sharing training schemes and organizational experience, as well as mining the U.S. squad for talent and holding a summer training camp in Austin. The Aztex proper will begin play in 2009 as part of the United Soccer Leagues First Division. Rawlins has also acquired the Austin Aztex U23 (formerly the Austin Stampede), who are set to kick things off in the USL Premier Development League on May 3 in El Paso. The team's first home game will be against the Houston Leones on May 10 at a pitch yet to be determined. For more on the Aztex, see Playing Through, The Score, and www.austinaztex.com. – Mark Fagan
Beyond City Limits
• The sprawl-laden cities of Leander, Cedar Park, and Round Rock got initial approval for a controversial plan Monday to syphon up to 141 million gallons of water a day from Lake Travis, getting the go-ahead to borrow more than $309 million in state dough from the Texas Water Development Board to fund the project. Opponents include North Lake Travis residents, organized into the Don't Empty Lake Travis Association, who say they were shut out of planning and that the project's construction will scourge neighborhood parkland, place industrial equipment too close to residences, and unjustly condemn private property along a proposed pipeline. The Save Our Springs Alliance, in a letter to the TWDB, attacked the practically nonexistent water-conservation efforts in the three cities. DELTA questioned the logic of transferring water from Travis County's Colorado River Watershed into Williamson County's Brazos River Watershed without replacing it. They also pointed to Williamson's nonutilized ground-water alternatives, the project's potential to alter lake levels drastically, and a planned Leander-area real estate development deal by Leander Mayor John Cowman. All three cities will raise water rates to fund the project, 47% of which will be bankrolled by Leander. For more info, see www.twdb.state.tx.us and www.draininglaketravis.org. – Daniel Mottola
• In what can be seen as a reminder to the White House incumbent of the state he governed, the Democrats' Spanish-language response to President George W. Bush's final State of the Union address was delivered by another Texan: State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio. She was invited by U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to deliver the response, which was broadcast on Telemundo and other Spanish-language networks. She recorded it the afternoon before the address in the speaker's office and got to watch Bush deliver the address from Pelosi's box in the chamber. Her text was not a translation of the English-language response delivered by Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, but a new text worked on by Van de Putte and the national leadership, emphasizing issues important to the Latino community. Van de Putte said, "The point I was toughest on the administration on was health care, especially health care for children, knowing that Congress has passed bipartisan funding for CHIP and the president vetoed it twice." – R.W.
• The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board unanimously agreed to college-readiness standards that will be forwarded to Education Commissioner Robert Scott. The standards are intended to outline what a high school graduate should know by the time he or she enters postsecondary education. At a gathering last week, Commissioner Raymund Paredes said his greatest fear is that these standards – which he said are on par with some of the highest standards in the nation – will be watered down as the document goes to the commissioner, then on to the State Board of Education. – Kimberly Reeves
• On the regional front, the nonprofit E3 Alliance hosted a leaders summit last week to outline strategies to address some of the pressing Central Texas education statistics. The Alliance emphasizes the economic consequences of educational issues, saying dropouts in each class cost the region $425 million in unrealized income and increased social services and the possible loss of 85,000 jobs. Gene Austin of the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce said the chamber is shifting its own goal from graduation to matriculation through college, which is necessary for most jobs of the future. – K.R.
• It's hard to say when green became the new black or how extensively the eco-chic movement of late has permeated mainstream culture, but one thing is certain: Advertisers are slathering green all over ads for everything from cars to coal power. Enter local marketing firm EnviroMedia, which last week launched GreenwashingIndex.com, in partnership with the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication, as an online forum for consumers to judge for themselves whether a company's ad represents "greenwashing" – defined as spending more time and money claiming to be green through advertising and marketing than actually implementing business practices that minimize environmental impacts. As of Jan. 22, 8,700 people had visited the site, where users are invited to post questionably green ads or view and rate previously posted ads. Topping the worst greenwashing ads was a Chevrolet billboard describing the company as "gas-friendly to gas-free," even though Chevy hasn't sold a gas-free vehicle since the infamous EV1. Among best-rated ads is one for EarthFriendlyMoving.com, a Southern California-based start-up that employs loads of green tactics, including renting plastic boxes made from recycled content (aka the RecoPack) to eliminate cardboard-box paper use and waste. – D.M.
• Investigators from the Mutual UFO Network, known as MUFON, descended upon the sleepy farming community of Stephenville on Saturday, Jan. 19, to look into a rash of recent UFO sightings that have captured national attention in the past few weeks. Eight MUFON investigators, who are certified upon completion of a MUFON-mandated course of study and apprenticeship, spent four hours taking accounts from locals, compiling at least 50 reports, said Texas MUFON Director Ken Cherry, who is leading the investigation. Cherry said there's significant consistency to the accounts so far. He added that Erath County has a history of sightings dating back to the Seventies. Cherry also claimed MUFON has already disproved the explanation offered by the Air Force that the strange lights seen were an illusion created by light reflected off two passenger jets – this is easily falsifiable with airline records, he said. "We use the scientific method, until we've exhausted that approach and determine that it's an unknown," he said. – J.W.
• The National Border Patrol Council of the American Federation of Government Employees AFL-CIO has sounded another alarm about U.S. enforcement policy – this time sharply criticizing U.S. Customs and Border Protection's new strategy to increase the force pronto, in part by truncating background checks. On Jan. 18, CBP issued a notice on www.fedagent.com, which rolled out the expedited hiring program. Applicants may "jump-start the process" of becoming border patrol agents, taking just 30 days to complete certification and training, according to the notice. It breathlessly entices applicants: "Test results are available the same day the exam is taken. Applicants who pass the test go to Dallas for an accelerated, 2-day hiring process, which includes a background check, polygraph exam, medical and fitness testing, and oral interview." However, the agents union issued an immediate rejoinder via its website, www.nbpc.net, which predicts that incomplete background checks "will cause the agency more grief than it's worth. The hiring of criminals, illegal aliens, and unqualified applicants will go through the roof." Apparently, the union's detailed testimony on the subject, delivered to the U.S. Senate last June by NBPC President T.J. Bonner, had little effect. Bonner had cautioned: "Every sizeable law enforcement agency that has ever engaged in an overambitious recruitment program has suffered the inevitable consequences of increased corruption and attrition ... with a resultant loss of public confidence." A clearinghouse for articles on border corruption may be found at www.checkpointusa.org/DHS/articles/articles.htm. – Patricia J. Ruland